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‘The lion has awoken’: indigenous people of Bolivia rise up against imperialist coup

In the days following the right-wing coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia on 10 November 2019, the indigenous masses have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to defend their democratically elected president and the gains they have won under his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government. Cassandra Howarth reports.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Paulo Fabre. Free use Creative Commons. 23 October 2019

Cassandra Howarth*


By 12 November, tens of thousands of indigenous campesino (peasant) and working-class Bolivians had taken over the La Paz suburb of El Alto, blocking roads and bridges and barricading the main international airport. Armed MAS supporters occupied the highway to the north of La Paz, chanting ‘The sleeping lion has awoken! Long live Evo Morales!’ Thousands more marched on Cochabamba determined to shut down the city; as they stormed a barricade in Coloni they chanted: ‘Evo, friend, the people are with you!’ The Unified Syndical Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), the largest union of peasants in Bolivia, has threatened to hold an indefinite strike unless peace and democracy are restored. The leader of the Miners’ Union also issued this statement to those behind the coup: ‘The people and miners are rising, it’s serious. Go home, allow peace, stop your crimes, inciting racism, violence, coup. We’ll look for you everywhere if you keep destroying our homeland’. Thousands have occupied La Plaza Murillo in the centre of the administrative capital La Paz, with thousands more joining them every hour, many walking over 25km as public transport is mostly at a standstill. Despite the violence unleashed by the military and police, including live fire, and the deaths of at least 23 protesters, resistance to the coup is growing rapidly, led by barrio organisations and campesino unions.

Fascists, racists and cronies of imperialism

This is a coup led by the most fascistic and reactionary elements of Bolivian society and backed by US imperialism and the Organisation of American States (OAS), who used their well-worn tactic of crying foul when their preferred candidate lost the presidential election.

Morales’ presidential rival, the pro-US former president Carlos Mesa, has been a safe pair of hands for imperialism’s regime change project in Bolivia. Wikileaks revealed US government cables exposing regular correspondence between Mesa and US government officials on efforts to destabilise the MAS government in recent years, and in the run-up to the election he received $10m from the US. However, he has been something of a figurehead, from whose shadow more sinister forces are now emerging to take control in the wake of the coup. The racist contempt these coup-mongers hold for the country’s indigenous people is blatant. Chief of these is a local opposition politician from the reactionary stronghold of Santa Cruz, Luis Fernando Camacho.

Evo Morales – Photo by Sebastian Baryli.Flickr License Creative Commons

The day after Morales resigned, Luis Fernando Camacho prayed in the presidential palace with a bible in one hand and the Bolivian flag in the other.

‘Pachamama [the indigenous Andean spirit of the earth] will never return to the palace,’ he said. ‘Bolivia belongs to Christ.’ In the run-up to the coup he had vowed to purge the country of its indigenous leader and ‘return God to the burned palace’.

Camacho – a multi-millionaire named in the Panama Papers for off-shore tax evasion – was born into an elite Santa Cruz gas dynasty. He is a former leader of a fascist paramilitary group – the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) – notorious for its racist violence and role in the reactionary separatist movement in Santa Cruz.

The UJC has been linked to assassination attempts against Morales – whose government it calls a ‘Satanic indigenous mass’ – and has a history of assault and massacre against the left-wing, indigenous people, the working class, LGBT+ people and progressive journalists (see FRFI 205 Camacho is a member of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee – a group formed by descendants of Croatian Nazi-collaborating Ustashe fascists who fled to Bolivia at the end of World War II.

The Camacho family Santa Cruz gas cartel – Camacho’s father, uncle and cousin all run local gas companies – want to restore their business empire, which lost some of its wealth when Morales nationalised natural resources to fund social programmes. Camacho represents the racist, arrogant, privileged ruling class that is now determined to overturn the gains made for the poor under Morales.

The country’s new opposition ‘interim president’ is Jeanine Anez, who previously tweeted: ‘I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rituals. The city is not for “Indians”: they should go to the highlands or the swamps!’. Her new cabinet contains not a single indigenous politician. An evangelical Christian, she was sworn in clutching an outsize bible (previously banned in the Senate), after the legitimate successor to Morales, President of the Senate Adriana Salvatierra, a member of MAS, was assaulted by police and barred from entering the parliamentary building, while military jets flew overhead in a show of force. The vote to appoint Anez was boycotted by MAS politicians who are now on hunger strike and occupying the assembly. Her appointment has been welcomed, inevitably, by the US and British governments.

Photo: Pixabay

The crucial element in any coup is the support of the military. Fortunately for the opposition they had in the head of the Bolivian army, Williams Kaliman, a former military attaché to Washington on behalf of the pro-US previous Bolivian government in 2003. His intervention, in publicly calling on Morales to stand down on 10 November, precipitated the coup. A number of senior army and police figures who played a role in the coup, for example joining opposition protesters on the streets to give the impression of a popular uprising against Morales, were trained at the notorious US School of the Americas and by the FBI. Members of the military filmed themselves gleefully ripping the Wiphala flag – the indigenous flag that had become Bolivia’s secondary flag under Morales – off their uniforms when the coup began. These racist, reactionary forces were crucial to the ability of the coup-plotters to force Evo Morales’ resignation. They will be relentless in the brutality they are prepared to mete out to repress the peasant and working-class forces organising against them.

Evo Morales: a president for the poor

Under 13 years of leadership by Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, and his Movement for Socialism (MAS), the poor and working class have made huge gains, challenging 500 years of social exclusion, privatisation, poverty and neoliberalism (FRFI271). Under Morales, Bolivia:

  • Slashed poverty by half
  • Halved infant mortality and reduced chronic malnourishment of children from 27% to 16%
  • Almost tripled the electrification of rural homes
  • Prioritised defending the environment, for example by reducing deforestation by 64% in just three years and planting five million trees in 2018
Photo: Pixabay

Inflation fell to just 1.5%, and Bolivia’s economy is the fastest-growing in the region. But for the wealthy right-wing of Santa Cruz, Morales’ reforms and championing of the rights of indigenous people were a direct threat to their entrenched privilege, and they hated him, while for imperialism, any kind of progressive government in Latin America is intolerable. These interests were given new impetus over the vital question of Bolivia’s reserves of lithium.

Lithium – imperialism’s ‘green’ gold

‘It is important to recall that Bolivia has suffered a series of coups, often conducted by the military and the oligarchy on behalf of transnational mining companies. Initially, these were tin firms, but tin is no longer the main target in Bolivia. The main target is its massive deposits of lithium, crucial for the electric car.’ Vijay Prashad (

Bolivia has between 50% and 70% of the world’s lithium supplies – an essential component in electric batteries, as well as mobile phones, and vital to capitalism’s attempts to harness so-called ‘green’ energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. No wonder ExxonMobil, the second biggest polluter on the planet which has recently announced an interest in lithium-based power, was funding Carlos Mesa’s projects. There is no doubt that Morales was seen as an impediment to the imperialist countries’ access to that precious mineral, having nationalised the country’s resources and made it clear that any joint enterprise with foreign firms would have to involve its national mining and lithium companies as equal partners. While a number of companies, including Tesla, were keen to have access to Bolivian lithium, they were not prepared to meet these requirements. Earlier this year, Bolivia’s state lithium company, YLB, announced a deal with a Chinese consortium Xinjiang TBEA Group Co Ltd, giving it a 49% stake in a planned joint venture.

A coup foretold

What ensued, therefore, was a textbook coup. Audiotape evidence has emerged on social media of opposition leaders in the run-up to the 20 October election stating that in the event of a Morales victory they would allege fraud and call on their supporters to burn government buildings with a view to establishing a new ‘civic-military’ government. It is clear that US senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were involved in these discussions.

Photo: Pixabay

Right on cue, as the results from the election were coming in, fascist mobs rampaged through the streets of the country’s main city, La Paz, burning homes and buses. A MAS mayor, an indigenous woman, was dragged barefoot through the streets by a vicious mob after they had shorn her, doused her in red paint, violently assaulted her and set fire to the municipal building in Vinto. Family members of MAS politicians were attacked, kidnapped and held hostage until the government officials agreed to resign, indigenous people were attacked and racially abused, roadblocks and strikes were held, and government property burnt down. Shamefully, in the face of this right-wing intimidation, the country’s largest union, the COB, vacillated, suggesting that Morales should step down ‘to prevent further bloodshed’.

Morales resigned, condemning the coup against him, and accepted political asylum in Mexico. What has ensued has been a carnival of reaction. Within hours, 38 electoral officials were rounded up and detained. 20 government ministers sought asylum in the Mexican embassy after lynch mobs threatened their lives and those of their families. Opposition leaders tore down the Wiphala flag from outside the presidential palace. The newly-appointed minister of communication, Roxana Lizárraga, warned that journalists identified as ‘causing sedition’, whether Bolivian or foreign, will face arrest. State TV has been taken off air. Anez has called on the military to subdue the ‘hordes’ of indigenous people protesting in Cochabamba and La Paz, and said that Morales will be arrested if he sets foot back in the country.

As ever, the bourgeois media in Britain has been only too happy to gloss over the brutal reality of this imperialist backed coup – or ‘alleged coup’, to use their language. The Guardian and the BBC welcomed the violent opposition protests as ‘popular mobilisations’ against a president they routinely slurred as ‘tainted by electoral fraud’, and eagerly – along with other imperialist apologists like Extinction Rebellion and Novara Media – recycled the propaganda of the self-styled ‘human rights activist’ Jhanisse Vaca Daza, who used the hashtag #SOSBolivia to falsely paint the MAS government as responsible for environmental destruction in Bolivia.

Photo: Pixabay

Daza is a ‘professional regime-change operative and the spearhead of a network of Western organizations that trained and advised the leaders of regime-change operations from Venezuela to Eastern Europe to the on-going anti-China protests in Hong Kong’ (Grayzone). During the fires in Bolivia, she used her NGO, Ríos de Pie, to raise money and helmets, fire-resistant gloves, bandanas and more for both fighting fires (what she claimed on her personal twitter) and ‘civil resistance’ (what she stated on the Rios de Pie twitter account). It has been reported that under the guise of raising money to fight the fires, and to support ‘non-violent resistance to Morales’, Daza used Rios de Pie and fellow regime-change ‘influencer’ Valeria Hinojosa’s NGO Water Thru Skin as a conduit to smuggle money into Bolivia to fund Camacho.

Meanwhile the petit bourgeois left has consistently attacked Evo Morales for what they consider his compromises with business interests over the past 13 years — with the SWP accusing him of abandoning the popular movements that brought him to power (see for example “Evo Morales’ wrong turn in Bolivia” by the SWP’s Mike Gonzalez.

Yet when it comes to the general election in imperialist Britain, the SWP make no such demands on behalf of the working class. Instead it campaigns without embarrassment for a vote for Jeremy Corbyn – a politician not half the leader Morales was or is; where Morales transformed the lives of the poor and working class in Bolivia, we have yet to see Corbyn do anything in practice to confront racism and austerity in Britain.

The coup in Bolivia is a massive blow against the working class, carried out by imperialist powers desperate to maintain their control of Latin America. But the people of the continent are rising up against poverty and oppression, from Chile to Honduras, and the indigenous masses of Bolivia are part of that struggle.

*Article published by  RCG Revolutionary Communist Group


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