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Bolivia’s Coup Government Schedules New Election While Persecuting Opposition

November 26, 2019

Bolivia's social movements and former President Evo Morales support the new elections, but it's far from certain that they will be fair.

Bolivia's social movements and former President Evo Morales support the new elections, but it's far from certain that they will be fair.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Bolivia’s turmoil looks like it is calming down now that the self-declared interim president Jeanine Anez signed a law that cancels the October 20 presidential election and scheduled a new one for early next year with a new electoral authority. Also, social movements opposed to the November 10 coup against President Evo Morales, came to an agreement with the government to stop the street blockades. So far, about 33 anti-coup government protesters have been killed and hundreds wounded in Bolivia since the coup took place. Most of these deaths and injuries happened after president Anez signed a decree that gives immunity to the military for its actions while engaged in crowd control.

Meanwhile, former President Evo Morales said from his exile in Mexico that he’s fine with not running for president again in the next election if this helps to pacify the situation in Bolivia. The new interior minister of the coup government, however, has said that Morales should be sent to prison on charges of terrorism.

Joining me now to discuss the evolving situation in Bolivia is Forrest Hylton. He’s associate professor of history at the National University of Colombia in Medellin, and he’s also the coauthor of the book Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian politics. Thanks for joining us again, Forrest.

FORREST HYLTON: Great to be here, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: In an article that you recently wrote for the London Review of Books, you argue that Bolivia appears to be returning to its pre-Morales days of 2003. What did you mean by that?

FORREST HYLTON: Well, I think I’d have to qualify that statement somewhat. But what I meant was that before Evo Morales came to power, in fact, you had neoliberal governments with very, very minimal legitimacy. And these governments were meeting a rising tide of social protest, mainly by indigenous movements and coca growers’ movements–and in fact a range of social sectors that begin to mobilize and Bolivia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, rejecting the neoliberal model. And as protests and mobilization kind of escalated in Bolivia, particularly in 2003, the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada had only been elected with 22% of the vote, I think just over 1% more than the runner-up, who was Evo Morales, in the elections in 2002. So a government with really minimal legitimacy in 2003 began using government force to repress protestors.

And that led to a nationwide insurrection and the overthrow of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. And the formulation of a new agenda for the country, the so-called October agenda, which will involve the nationalization of gas, constituent assembly and the writing of a new constitution, and the trial of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and his Minister of Events at the time, Carlos Sanchez Berzain. So that was the October agenda, that’s what eventually brought Evo Morales to power in 2006. And it seems that the goal of this coup regime is precisely to undo all of the achievements of the Evo Morales government. And particularly, the political representation that social movements achieved in the Evo Morales government. And to return to a kind of neoliberal status quo.

This is an effort at restoration of the pre 2003 status quo. And we see remarkably similar patterns, in terms of use of state violence against unarmed, mostly indigenous demonstrators, whether in the city of El Alto, on November 20 where eight people were massacred apparently by government, military and police. And also, I believe it was on November 15 when nine cocoa growers were massacred in Sacaba outside of Cochabamba. So it’s a government that with Supreme Decree 4078, legalized–as you mentioned–immunity for military personnel using force against civilians. Previously, that would’ve been a crime according to a law that was passed in 2005 precisely to prevent any kind of recurrence of what happened in 2003. So that’s the sense in which I meant it feels very much like a return of 2003 with the use of excessive force.

But also, there’s the dimension of political persecution of regime opponents. And so now, as you mentioned, Evo Morales is being threatened with terrorism charges should he return to Bolivia. And the Minister of Government, Alberto Murillo, announced on November 17 that he had a list of MAS Congress people that he was going to arrest for seditious activities. That apparently was just a threat in order to influence negotiations between the government and the parliamentary delegation of Evo Morales’ political party, MAS. But nevertheless, there have been arrests of MAS members. The current vice president of MAS is under arrest for driving a car without a license plate. And so we see, clearly, that the new Minister of Government is doing what it can to persecute MAS members. And that is one of the points of negotiation between the MAS parliamentary delegation and the new government. How far can this new government go in persecuting MAS officials? That’s one of the points that’s still being negotiated.

And another point that’s still being negotiated is the issue of immunity for the armed forces, according to Supreme Decree 4078. So social movements are trying to get the coup regime to kind of backpedal, somewhat, on the issue of immunity, and to guarantee that any further murders of civilians are will be prosecuted according to law. So that’s the main point of negotiation or contingent right now between the coup government and the MAS parliamentary delegation, as well as the coup government and the social movements. And the social movements have, slowly but surely, pulled back, excuse me, slowly but surely, pulled back their road blockades. I think, at its height, there were 93 different points throughout the national territory that were blocked. And little by little, those blockades have been lifted.

And perhaps most importantly, the blockades in El Alto have been lifted. And therefore, supplies of fuel and food are arriving, where before there was scarcity and shortages. And that’s what led the government of president Anez, the self-proclaimed president of Bolivia to massacre, I think actually it was nine people, in the neighborhood of the Senkata gas plant in El Alto on November 20. Those people marched with their coffins down to La Paz the following day to try to establish a dialogue with the government  and they were met with tear gas and repression. And then they had to walk back up to El Alto from the capital city of La Paz with the coffins on their shoulders having received no response from the government and no even acknowledgement of the massacre. But things have advanced since then in terms of the coup government being able to establish a dialogue both with social movements and with the MAS parliamentary delegation. They’ve got their new electoral law.

And now, kind of the finer points remain to be negotiated with the indigenous and social movements. But it looks, for now, as though the coup government has pretty much sewn things up. And they’ve done so, of course, with support from the organization of American States; to some degreNfrom the United nations and the European Union. So what’s really remarkable about this coup government in Bolivia is just how rapidly it has been able to gain a certain legitimacy for itself. Certainly abroad, but also internally through negotiation with the leaders of different social movements as well as different factions within MAS. Right now, the movements and MAS seem divided and weakened in the face of this coup government, which is strengthened.

GREG WILPERT: What do you think is going to happen now going forward? I mean, in terms of now that a new election is going to be scheduled, do you think that the current right-wing government would allow these elections to be free and fair? I mean, you mentioned basically the use of legal measures to prevent them from running essentially, it sounds like. I don’t know if Alvaro Garcia Linera, for example, would even be allowed to run; I don’t know if he would even be a candidate. But still, the question remains if these would be a free election or will they just use these elections and manipulate them to consolidate their grip on power? What do you think?

FORREST HYLTON: Well, it’s an open question. And they are going, of course… The coup regime is going to do everything it can to gain international legitimacy for these elections. Precisely the kind of international legitimacy that the previous elections did not have. And so it’s really not in their interest, I would say, to try to tamper with the results. And furthermore, I would be surprised if MAS was able to pick up more, than say, I don’t know, 32 or 33% of the vote without Abel as a candidate. Alvaro Garcia Linera, along Evo Morales’ vice president, has also been prescribed from Bolivian politics. But that actually might be a gift to MAS forces. It’s not clear to me that Alvaro Garcia Linera could do anything but generate a lot of a reaction against him as a candidate. I don’t think he would be very successful at all, given the current contours of a Bolivian politics, but it’s not clear, after Abel and Alvaro, exactly who, within MAS, would be a presidential candidate.

And of course, that points to the extent to which they were highly dependent on the figure of Evo Morales and really did very little in the way of kind of leadership development for all those years they were in power. So that’s going to be a problem going forward for them in the elections. But I imagine they’re still going to be able to take at least sort of a third of the vote, and they should be in a good position in terms of parliament. So MAS is not going to disappear as a political force, but it’s certainly going to be a political force that’s something of a shadow of its former self. And it’s a political force that’s no longer to command the state.

And maybe the most important thing, Greg, is that going forward, it’s pretty clear that kind of the business and political interests that have always been opposed to Evo Morales, and that really had no choice but to sort of negotiate with the regime in one way or another for a number of years, now have direct political representation of their own. And I think the whole idea was really to do a sort of end run around Morales and keep them out of Bolivian politics. In the same way that Rafael Correa has to be kept out of Ecuadorian politics. Lula had to be kept out of Brazilian politics in order for kind of the reactionary oligarchs, it’s old and new. Because it would be a mistake to say that this is just the return to power of a traditional elite.

As we know, there’s kind of new elements and new sectors within this elite that has come to power in Bolivia. Which is, essentially a paramilitary fascist, a right wing project based in lowlands, that has achieved an extraordinary degree of legitimacy through this coup regime. And it’s positioned to do reasonably well in the elections that will be forthcoming. So it will be interesting to see how kind of far right forces stack up against MAS, when they actually have to compete for them with both, in what we presume is going to be a somewhat level playing field. But we have to take into account that, right now, various MAS figures are being persecuted and brought up on charges. So obviously, it’s a political playing field, which favors the right fairly dramatically in any number of ways. But that said, MAS probably still remains the single most popular political party in Bolivia.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. Of course, we’re going to continue to follow the situation in Bolivia quite intensely as the situation develops. I mean, it’s also interesting to see what’s going to happen with Carlos Mesa, was the person who ran against Evo Morales, who has been pretty much kept a distance from this coup government, it seems. But let’s see what happens. I was speaking to Forest Hylton, associate professor of history at the National University of Colombia in Medellin. Thanks again, Forrest for having joined us today.

FORREST HYLTON: Great talking to you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.