Bolivia’s Coup of November 2019: where did it go wrong for Evo Morales?

Evo Morales waving the colourful flag of the Movement Towards Socialism against a black, night-time background. He is smiling and so are the people around him, some of whom also wave flags and others have musical instruments.
Evo Morales: an indigenous, radical union leader whose compromises
with big business lost the support he needed to resist the coup of 10 November.

On Tuesday 12 November 2019, Jeanine Anez, a fierce, right-wing opponent of socialist Evo Morales, took power in Bolivia with the backing of the police and the military. This represents a setback for the working class and indigenous people of Bolivia (and beyond). It was a setback that could have been avoided and the main lesson is a simple one: socialists cannot succeed in bringing about lasting change from the top downwards.

In 2005, Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first ever elected indigenous President, he maintained this position for nearly fourteen years. How did an indigenous, radical union militant and leader of coca growers become the president of Bolivia?

This article seeks to explain the rise of Morales and the MAS party (movement towards socialism) government and the process of change it brought to the people of Bolivia and its economy. This explanation has to be found in a wider understanding of the history and politics of Latin America.

Latin America is one of the most unequal regions on the planet: according to Meirke Blofield’s 2011, The Great Gap: Inequality and the Politics of Redistribution in Latin America inequality in Latin America has been an entrenched characteristic since colonization, he states that in 2009, 189 million people in the region lived in poverty.

Latin America has a long history of reliance on world markets and transnational powers for its survival. Following a history of colonialism, in post-independence, Latin America prioritised exporting its vast abundance of natural resources over developing its economy domestically, leaving the region weak, underdeveloped and vulnerable to the boom and bust cycles of capitalism. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit the region very hard as demand for exports dramatically reduced.

World War II and the subsequent rebuilding years following the war created a stimulus to world trade internationally and Latin America’s exports began to rise. By 1955 manufacturing was ahead of agriculture in real GDP terms. Latin America adopted a form of Keynesian economics with welfare supports and social democracy. It wanted to turn from free market economics to focus on domestic development using Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI) as a protection from the turbulent and at times devastating consequences of Laissez Faire economics.

ISI focused mainly on high export Tarriffs, domestic industrial growth as opposed to agriculture and saw a rapid growth in urban populations across the region, it shielded many from the full force of market demands through subsidies, it gave labour rights, gave land rights to indigenous groups and initiated public health, education and housing programs.

A square made out of coloured squares which run in diagonals: 1 yellow, bottom left; 2 orange; 3 red; 4 purple; 5 blue; 6 green; 7 white; 6 yellow; 5 orange; 4 red; 3 purple, 2 blue and 1 green, top right.
The Whipla: the flag of some native people of the Andes

While this protectionism gave some improvements to the quality of life it did not tackle the deeply entrenched inequality that remained a consistent across the region: those who mainly benefited were the formal work force, the middle class and the elite.

Latin America was still dependent on core countries for export and import, technical and intellectual know-how and loans to help cover the high costs of its welfare programme demands. In the 1970s, the global economy experienced another shock, in the form of an oil crisis and war in the Middle East.

The downturn affected the Latin American region in many ways, the revenue from and rate of exports reduced; the cost of imports increased; inflation across the region exploded, leading to an ever-increasing debt for every Latin American country. For example, in Bolivia the inflation rate in 1984 was at 1,300% by 1985 it was 11,805%. By 1983, total debt in Latin America was nearly 300 times the rate of its exports. The region had to turn to the International Monetary Fund for assistance in paying its soaring debt from international capital.

Loans from the IMF are significant for countries as they signal to international markets and lenders that the country is credit worthy. The IMF insist on neo-liberal structural reforms from a borrowing country: the IMF is the last resort for countries, they are rarely able to refuse.  Structural reforms consist of reducing state spending, privatisation of state assets and resources, also the privatisation of health, housing and education resources, a more precarious labour market with few labour laws, minimal welfare supports. This austerity often led to authoritarian regimes and military control in order to implement such goals.  As Jean Grugel wrote (in Grugel & Riggirozzi’s 2011 Governance after Neo-liberalism in Latin America):

By the early 1980s the social fabric of the region was in tatters, the horrors of civil war, military aggression and state sponsored repression created a willingness among ordinary people and their leaders not to push too far in the way of redistribution.

 A change in international relations and a horror at how the military regimes treated its citizens brought a third wave of democracy in Latin America in reaction to authoritarian control.

The third wave worked in two ways: through free market economics and liberal politics. This created a very minimalist form of democracy and its only requirement was free and fair elections. Neoliberalism believes in reduced state intervention and control that the free market can regulate itself and will eventually reduce inequality using trickle-down economics. It is in the context of this third wave that, despite its limitations, radical movements could begin to find political expression, including in Bolovia.

Bolivia has a wealth of natural resources including forestry, minerals, lithium and more recently, oil and natural gas reserves. Additionally, there are large swathes of agricultural land with a strong livestock industry and significant soya bean production. The wealth and development from these resources have never been equally distributed among all sectors of the Bolivian population.

According to Linda Farthing’s 2019 article, ‘An Opportunity Squandered? Elites, Social Movements and the Government of Evo Morales’, the elite within Bolivia have run the country in their own self-interest for over 200 years drawing from their own class to ensure the positions of the presidency, the senate and the judiciary were tightly within their power. 

The neo-liberal era in Bolivia did not reduce inequality; the New Economic Policy negotiated by the IMF was implemented by three consecutive right-wing state managers from 1985-2002. This shock treatment caused profound economic and political exclusion of popular sectors, threatening their very livelihood leaving them without defences.

Nevertheless, this inequality was challenged in a number of dramatic outbreaks of social struggle by workers and their allies. In 1952, for example, Bolivia experienced a social revolution.

Bolivia 1952, massive crowds of workers march behind white banners, the most prominent of which reads VIVA EL M.H.R.
A massive, workers-led revolution swept through Bolivia in 1952

The implementation of the New Economic Policy in the 1990s saw reforms in labour laws, reductions in mining, and an increase in gas production. The traditional unionised sectors from rural areas were destroyed.  People sought employment and began organising in more urban environs. The USA under the new economic regime were facilitated to destroy coca growing and coca farmers. This brought traditional union organisations, national liberation movements and indigenous groups together: earlier in the twentieth century, these groups did not have perceive common ground with each other. These challenges and new formations of popular sectors and their subsequent struggles against the New Economic Policy lay the foundations for the MAS party and the presidency of Evo Morales.

The period 2000 – 2002 saw powerful social movements such as the 2000 water war in CochabambaAymara and a protest movement in Chapare of coca growers.

The original strategy of MAS was in extra-parliamentary activism, grounded in anti-neoliberal, anti-imperialist and rank and file democracy. Its power lay in the great number of different organisations involved in the party, including neighbourhood groups, unions, precariat workers, women’s groups and indigenous organisations. These groups were able to mobilise against neo-liberal reforms and eventually topple two successive right-wing presidents.

Jeffrey Webber’s 2017 The last day of Oppression and the First Day of the Same:  The politics and Economics of New Latin American Left, points out that Bolivia had a huge opportunity for fundamental, transformative and structural change from 2000-2005 as it was in a:

… revolutionary epoch this saw a combined rural and urban rebellion of a liberation struggle to end the interrelated process of class exploitation and racial oppression.

Post 2005, however, the class composition leadership layers of the party, its ideology and political strategy began to shift from a revolutionary organisation to a reformist outlook. When it began to contest elections and needed the middle-class urban voters, its leadership began to reflect an outlook formed more by the intelligentsia and middle class than that of workers.

The election of Evo Morales and the MAS party brought significant improvements to the lives of those who have suffered consistent inequality, poverty, racism, sexism and exclusion in Bolivia. According to Linda Farthing the victory of MAS expanded formal rights for women and indigenous people, leading to a significant increase of both within the MAS party and in positions of power in government.

Bolivia has seen one of the greatest drops in poverty: it has tripled the minimum wage, provided massive public investments in rural areas with new schools, hospitals and roads, and initiated the biggest land reform since the 1952 revolution. Despite opposition from the USA, MAS ensured that coca production became an indigenous right. The Morales leadership introduced a more radical constitution, voted on by referendum, his leadership brought a reduction in violence and a more stable situation for the majority of Bolivian people.

Yet Evo Morales’s administration failed to deliver on its more radical promises.

The domestic elite and transnational capital still had control of important sectors of the economy: banking, insurance and construction (mainly in LA Paz the capital and Santa Cruz the headquarters for the hydrocarbon and agribusiness sectors). After Morales’ first electoral victory to the presidency, the ruling elite still maintained power in the senate parliament.

The elites in La Paz initially resisted the new Morales regime, but the flow of capital from large government contracts and a limited expansion of state banking soon saw the economy thrive and profits grow and with that the La Paz elites were happy to cooperate.

The Santa Cruz elites, on the other hand, have always been part of the regional autonomy movement and have rebelled against central government whenever they have come under pressure to deliver to the state an increased share of the economy.  To thwart Morales, the Santa Cruz movement formed a coalition with three other regions with a neo-liberal ideology and a discourse of light skinned superiority. At its height, this coalition mobilised a million people, almost bringing the Morales government to crisis, but the rebellion didn’t last as Morales had the support of social movements across the country. The right did manage to gain concessions from Morales regarding land reform, which saw many of the elites keep illegally acquired lands.  Nor did Morales fully nationalise gas production, which had been an election promise, but managed to secure a much-improved deal which brought a huge amount of capital to government funds.

A woman, dressed in white with a large sack of made of purple cloth is walking past graffiti which translates as: Gas is not for sale, damnit!
An indigenous woman stands in front of graffiti that says: Gas is not for sale, damnit!

The process of change in Bolivia under the Morales government saw much improvement for many, but there came a point where its momentum towards change began to falter. Workers remained in precarious employment. The rate of unionisation dropped despite the country having a strong militant history of union organisation. Bolivia under Morales, despite the name of his party, was not a socialist state, the elite still owned vast swathes of land, foreign investment grew under Morales and this gaves the elite power and leverage. In short, the left administration scored some success but failed to deliver on its radical promises.

Morales continued to negotiate and work with domestic and foreign capital even after increasing his political power after the 2009 election. The process of change in Bolivia has not seen a socialist society emerge, nor could it when the strategy was to work with the local elites and global powers, to obtain the resources for reform.

Morales and twenty members of his administration had to flee for their lives to Mexico following threats from the army and police on 10 November 2019. Their ability to rouse the population and especially the working class against this coup had been deeply undermined by years of disenchantment as well as a perception of interference with the election of 20 October 2019 by Morales’ supporters.

Of course, Independent Left are against the coup and for a restoration of Morales. But we also have a wider vision.

Time again in Latin America and beyond the demands of capital have clashed with aims of governments that have declared themselves socialist. And every time, whether the Castro regime post-Cuban revolution, or that of the Sandinistas, governments that tried to manage their local part of a world capitalist system ultimately failed to transform society.

You cannot bring about socialism on behalf of the working class while in partnership with big business. Instead, we have to take over the workplaces and run them on entirely different lines, with entirely different goals and with very different politics to those of Morales.

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