“Our Sin Was Being Indigenous, Leftist, and Anti-Imperialist” — A Primer On Bolivia’s US-Backed Coup
Morales was not only Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, but he has become a beacon of hope for the colonized world throughout his tenure as president.
“I am resigning just so that my sisters and brothers, leaders and authorities of the movement towards socialism, are not harassed, persecuted, and threatened,” Evo Morales, the democratically elected president of Bolivia, told the world in his somber resignation speech on November 10th. The speech came over two weeks after his supporters and members of his party were kidnapped, beaten, publicly humiliated, and assaulted by opposition forces; the images of Patricia Arce, mayor of Vinto in Bolivia, covered in red paint with her hair cut off and violently abused went viral, and serve as a representation of who’s behind the US-backed coup.
“Our sin was being Indigenous, leftist, and anti-imperialist,” Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, said in the midst of the coup. In the weeks following his ousting, it seems as if he were predicting the future : the first actions of the opposition leaders once assuming power were upholding the Bible, referring to the rights and religions of the Indigenous majority as “satanic”, even cutting and burning the Wiphala (Indigenous) flag in proud colonial form.
And as such violence and colonial fervor continue to sweep Bolivia’s working class, Western corporate media steadily presented the narrative that most closely coddled empire. That is, that the perpetrators of the coup were acting in service of “restoring democracy”, suggesting that Morales has somehow rigged the election despite zero evidence otherwise, referring to Morales as a dictator seeking an unconstitutional term (ignoring the fact that the Bolivian supreme court, in fact, said his presidential run was constitutional), and propping up an opposition whose politics resemble those of a Christopher Columbus and Donald Trump lovechild.
Many in the West outright refused to even name what has occurred as a “coup”. In one case writers Emma Graham-Harrison in London and Dan Collyns in La Paz referred to the events which have seen Bolivian politicians kidnapped, arrested, and abused as a “popular rebellion to protect democracy” [sic]. Beyond simply whitewashing a violent coup which ousted a democratically elected president, Western and corporate media have also largely ignored the thousands of Indigenous people who immediately took to the streets to defend not just Evo Morales, but their country and the stratospheric social, political and economic advances brought to them during Morales’ presidency. Protests, strikes, marches, and demonstrations have continued and steadily increased since the beginning of the coup, and around a dozen protesters have been murdered by opposition-aligned police and military forces. Despite the loss of lives, Western media continues to remain silent.
While Western media has decided not to label the events in Bolivia a coup, many believe there’s no other way to appropriately describe the situation. “What we are witnessing is a brutal right-wing coup orchestrated by the US,” author and human rights lawyer Dan Kovalik told me when we spoke. “While much of the Western press has tried to portray the unseating of Evo Morales as a flowering of democracy, it is, in fact, the opposite.”
“You now have a self-appointed president from a political party that received a mere 4% of the vote in the last election. This is, in fact, a return to the bad days of dictatorship,” says Kovalik. The self-appointed president he’s referring to is Jeanine Áñez, an outspoken anti-Indigenous, anti-socialist, white supremacist Bolivian lawmaker who has claimed the power of the presidency in the wake of Morales’ ousting. While Añez has assumed temporary power despite protesters demanding she resign, Evo Morales was forced to flee to Mexico for his safety after alleged death threats from the opposition.
The weight of this action also cannot be understated. As previously stated, Morales was not only Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, but he has become a beacon of hope for the colonized world throughout his tenure as president. In a recent essay discussing what the coup against Morales means for Indigenous people around the world, writer Nick Estes stated, “for our indigenous president, after five centuries of colonization, 13 years was not long enough.” In just those 13 years, Morales’ accomplishments include slashing extreme poverty by 43%, allocating social spending to create over 5,000 medical clinics, gyms, and schools in impoverished areas, quadrupling the GDP, and increasing the national minimum wage by over 104%. These progressive gains helped lift thousands of Indigenous people from poverty and allowed for the flourishing of social programs across the country, a feat that has inspired millions around the world by showing the positive results of the process of decolonization.
At the center of the crisis are a few key factors: elections, US support of the opposition, race, and class, and the longstanding history of colonialism and US imperialism in Latin America. I wanted to get a better grasp of the situation in these most basic terms and to provide a resource for those wanting to understand it, so I interviewed my colleague and friend Enrique Rivera. Enrique’s a historian specializing in the history of racism and capitalism in Latin America, a journalist and producer, activist, and an incredible source of knowledge to tap on. We discussed these key factors surrounding the crisis in Bolivia and more.
I want to stress that this article and the interview below are not meant to be extensive or all-encompassing. The events surrounding the coup are fresh, the people continue to build revolutionary momentum in the streets, and processes of counterrevolution like the world is witnessing in Bolivia can always be undone. (Don’t forget that a coup attempt by US-backed opposition forces ousted popular Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for only 47 hours before he retook power with the support of the Venezuelan people and that it took two coups led by actual US Marines to finally oust the incredible Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti. A similar fate of return to power is always waiting around the corner in Bolivia, as it is everywhere that US imperialism attempts to oust popular leaders.)
Below is the transcript of the interview I did with Enrique Rivera, which I hope readers will find informative and accessible.
I guess the best place to begin this conversation is on Bolivian President Evo Morales’ resignation itself. Many were a bit surprised by his resignation. What were your initial thoughts?
My initial thoughts were that this was clearly a coup. I was also surprised that the military had betrayed Morales, and I was deeply saddened for the social movements of Bolivia, for the Bolivian people, and for all oppressed peoples’ movements in the region, which would be negatively affected by this event.
At the center of this political crisis in Bolivia is the recent presidential election. I assume many of the folks reading this interview have seen much of the Western news coverage of the elections, which almost exclusively claims “election fraud” on the part of Morales and his party. Why is this claim so prominent and what’s the truth here?
The truth here is that Morales was favored in every poll conducted in Bolivia and out. There was no doubt that Morales would win, in fact his principal opponent, Carlos Mesa, admitted the fact just a few months before the election. The question was if Morales would win by the 10% margin required to avoid a second round. Some polls said he would win, others said he wouldn’t win by that much. There is no compelling proof that shows that there was fraud in the election, and the outcome was a reasonable, logical one.
Getting to the other part of this question, it is to be expected that the opposition’s claims would be those most represented in western media outlets. When it comes to foreign policy, particularly in regards to Latin America, the US media has historically followed the US Government line, and there’s no reason to think that this has changed, or that it will change given the current circumstances.
The Organization of American States (OAS) has essentially been leading the charge against Morales and contesting the election results. Who exactly comprises the OAS, and what should we know about them?
The OAS was established in Washington, DC in 1948, in the aftermath of WWII and at the very start of the Cold War. It was a project spearheaded by the US Government to combat communism in the Americas. The OAS has stayed true to its original mission throughout its history, and it is fair and reasonable to assess the organization as a tool of US imperialism in the region.
It’s important to note, however, that for a brief period, between 2005 and 2015, the organization was headed by Jose Miguel Insulza who was much less hawkish when it came to promoting US interests in the hemisphere. The past four years has seen the organization take perhaps its most blatantly imperial stance under the tenure of Luis Amagro, a formerly progressive Uruguayan politician who was expelled from his political party at home because of his aggressive postures towards the region’s socialist governments. Many leaders have claimed that Almagro is a CIA agent, and if we use history as our guide, that’s probably true. It would be a surprise if he wasn’t.
In the immediate hours following the coup, the first images we saw across social media were pictures and videos of coup supporters, including police and politicians, desecrating the Wiphala (indigenous) flag — burning it, cutting it, stomping on it — and replacing it with Christian symbols like the Bible. This leads me to believe there’s a strong race and class element to the events taking place in Bolivia, no?
Definitely. Morales said it himself, “this is a class struggle.” And in Bolivia, race and class are intricately tied together, and this is what Morales meant when he said this. In Bolivia, as in the rest of the region (and the world?), the legacy of colonialism is strongly intact. During the conquest and Spanish colonial periods, Europeans submitted the indigenous peoples to brutal labor arrangements that kept the standards of living for indigenous peoples low and those for Europeans high. As the colonial period developed, a small, racially mixed class emerged known as mestizos, who were said to be of European and indigenous descent.
According to official censuses, Bolivia is 60% indigenous, but this just means that 60% of the population speaks a native language. It is important to note that race is a poorly classified statistically in much of Latin America, due to the region’s history with the myth of mestizaje, a fiction originated during the early national period (early 19th century). I need to be a bit crude here, but the basic premise of this myth is that everyone in a country—say Bolivia, for example—is racially mixed. And that therefore everyone is the same–racism and discrimination don’t exist. This myth has allowed white elites in most countries to maintain a hold on political and economic power while keeping the African and Native American majorities without it.
In countries such as Bolivia, this large “mestizo” class emerges that doesn’t identify as either indigenous or white. But the reality of the situation is that these “mestizos” are largely of indigenous descent, and they are the inheritors of a racial-economic system that saw 10% of the population—those of European descent—usurping all of the country’s political and economic power.
I mention this because the sad reality is that 30% of the country’s population, those who consider themselves mestizo, but who are, in reality, indigenous people who have lost their language because of centuries of genocide, side with Europeans and the colonial regime they ran from the conquest until Morales’s election in 2005. The racial issue and the class issue are intricately woven together in Bolivia, and this coup is a manifestation of that.
It’s probably safe to assume that these racial elements and class allegiances compromise the actual leaders of the coup, as well. I know many tweets have circulated from Añez that are openly anti-Indigenous, racist, anti-socialist, and so forth.
Definitely. I went on the above tangent to try to get to this point–that the racism and anti-socialism espoused by Anez are inheritors of the colonial system. This is the system that the coup plotters hope to reinstate in Bolivia.
The US has been intricately involved in the ousting of leftist governments across Latin America for some time now. How do the recent events in Bolivia compare with others across the region?
The parallels are clear as day. And this is where it’s important to talk about neocolonialism. If you’re a Latin American ally of the United States–whether you are a government or an opposition movement (as is the case here with Bolivia)–every major decision you make must be approved by Washington. This is certainly the case with coups. There is no doubt in my mind or the minds of the vast majority of specialists on the subject, that the US government was involved in the overthrow of Morales.
Many have noted Bolivia’s lithium and mineral industry, which was projected to become a world competitor on the market in the near future, to be one possible motivation for the US-driven push to topple Morales’ presidency (With US imperialist propaganda magazine Foreign Policy already trying to undermine such a theory). What exactly is the connection here?
This is probably the first time I can say “I agree with Foreign Policy magazine.” I think this issue has been overreported. It makes sense because people in the west cannot comprehend why on earth the US would get involved in toppling the government of a poor country like Bolivia. It seems that this has served as an “ah-ha” moment for many, a silver bullet that answers the question.
Yes, they have huge reserves of lithium, but there is no reason to think that these would not be made accessible to the world’s largest manufacturers. In fact, the opposite is true. Bolivia had come to an agreement to mine these reserves with a German company until local protesters shut that plan down. The Morales government would gladly tap into this resource, and rightfully so.
And finally, as a historian, I’m sure you look at these events within the long arch of historical processes moreso than simply current events. What do you think history tells us about this coup, and what do you hope for the future of Bolivia?
Well, it’s the age-old struggle: it’s a struggle between the organized majority of oppressed, colonized people, against an elite minority–the colonizers. I anticipate that if the coup plotters manage to hold on to power that they won’t be able to do so for long. Their objective is clear: it’s to install a neoliberal political and economic model that goes against the interests of the vast majority of the population. After 14 years of revolution, it is unlikely that the Bolivian people will support this. And with the next crisis in capitalism coming right around the corner, I don’t think they will survive very long. I’m optimistic about the future of Bolivia, and I believe (and hope) that Morales will return to power at some point in the near future. But there is, of course, much work to do. But there are very smart and very dedicated people who have already started.
Devyn Springer is a writer, independent researcher, community organizer, and cultural worker whose work typically focuses on the African diaspora, history, political art, pedagogy, violence, and the space where these things come together. They’re an outcast who like loves Outkast and fried chicken.
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