Latin America’s groundbreaking experiment in 21st century socialism has suffered another devastating setback with the recent right-wing coup which ousted President Evo Morales of Bolivia, who was democratically elected for a fourth term in October, when he defeated his right-wing challenger 47 percent to 36 percent.
This coup has followed a similar historical formula as most Latin American military coups over the last half-century in countries that have dared to challenge the neoliberal order. The local oligarchy — backed by Washington and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — foments destabilization, violence and unrest, whereupon the military (trained by the notorious School of the Americas) intervenes in the name of “restoring order and democracy,” and takes power. When the police forces abandoned their posts and sided with the coup plotters, the die were cast.
In an effort to end further bloodshed, Morales was forced to resign, and he took a plane to Mexico where he was granted asylum. After Morales left the presidential palace, Bolivian multimillionaire and evangelical Christian Luis Fernando Camacho, who has been linked to fascist paramilitary groups, walked into the palace carrying a Bible and a cross pledging that “Pachamama will never return to the palace,” referring to an Indigenous word for Mother Earth. “Bolivia belongs to Christ.”
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After forcing all the top socialist government officials to resign, the white Mestizo elite — predominantly based in the wealthy Santa Cruz province — have hand-picked their new president: opposition Sen. Jeanine Añez Chavez, who recently posted on Twitter: “I dream of a Bolivia free of indigenous satanic rites, the city is not for Indians, they better go to the highlands or El Chaco.” The naked racism of the white elite coup plotters is on full display for the world to see. Morales was not exaggerating when he recently stated, “My sin was being Indigenous, leftist, and anti-imperialist.”
Since his ouster, Morales’s Indigenous supporters have been protesting in the streets, and several have been killed by police forces. The Indigenous majority is now experiencing a racist backlash from the resentful upper classes of European descent, who, during Morales’s tenure, saw Indigenous dress, customs and flags gain increasing prominence in the public arena. Members of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party still control majorities in both chambers of the Parliament, and they have unequivocally rejected the self-declared interim leader Añez.
The Andean nation was of particular interest to the multinational corporations due to it having the richest supply on Earth of lithium, considered the “gold of the 21st century” for its role as the key ingredient in car and smartphone batteries. Bolivia also contains vast reserves of natural gas, much of which Morales has nationalized.
Morales, a member of the Aymara Indigenous people and a former union leader for coca leaf growers, was first propelled onto the world stage of history after his election in 2005 as the nation’s first Indigenous president.
As a union leader during the “gas wars,” — a period in the early 2000s when workers and coca farmers were battling against the privatization of the country’s natural gas reserves to U.S. corporations – Morales observed how military interventionists went from using the anti-communist doctrine in the 1950s and 1960s, to the “war on drugs” in recent decades as a pretext for interfering in the region, ultimately to control the Bolivian people and their natural resources.
The former coca farmer is famous for chewing on a coca leaf at UN summits, a plant that has been targeted as a narcotic by the disastrous U.S. war on drugs. However, Morales has highlighted the medicinal use of this leaf, the chewing of which is an age-old custom among his people, and is an “important symbol of the history and identity of the Indigenous cultures of the Andes,” according to Morales.
After five centuries of Spanish colonialism and U.S. neocolonialism — during which Morales said Indigenous Bolivians “were marginalized, humiliated, hated, despised and condemned to extinction” — the social, cultural and economic rights of the Indigenous majority have been recognized and expanded during Morales’s presidency.
This began with the president spearheading a 2006 elected assembly of Bolivians to create a new and decolonized constitution aiming to empower the Indigenous majority and end the centuries-long rule by a white-Mestizo ruling elite. The new constitution was ratified by a popular vote of over 60 percent in 2009. It established the nation as a pluri-national, secular state recognizing all its peoples and nationalities, and laid the groundwork for Bolivia’s increased sovereignty and control over its own natural resources; the redistribution of land to the poor and excluded sectors; the promotion and inclusion of Indigenous languages and cultures; and the creation of permanent Indigenous seats in the parliament.
After right-wing separatist violence from the opposition in the predominantly non-Indigenous Eastern lowlands, Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador as well as Drug Enforcement Administration agents, a pattern that would continue throughout his time in office.
In his first major blow to the financial oligarchy, the daring Indigenous president ended 20 years of detrimental IMF structural-adjustment agreements, and nationalized large portions of the hydrocarbon industry. This increased the national government’s revenue sevenfold, allowing it to transform the country from one of the poorest in the hemisphere to the fastest-growing economy in the region.
Using the funds generated from the nationalized resources, Morales’s socialist government embarked on a radical anti-poverty and social inclusion program which achieved remarkable social advances over the last 12 years, including a reduction of poverty by 42 percent and extreme poverty by 60 percent; the eradication of illiteracy; a 50 percent reduction in unemployment; and the establishment of free universal health care — praised by the World Health Organization as a “model for Latin America”— which covers over 70 percent of the population and has significantly reduced infant mortality and child malnutrition.
Bolivia’s revolutionary government has not worked in isolation but has constituted a foundational pillar of the 21st century socialist project, or what scholars have called the “pink tide” — the wave of progressive and anti-imperialist Latin American governments that were voted into power in the first decade of the 21st century. These include Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and others (some governments which have since been defeated by right-wing backlash in recent years, such as the fascist government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil).
Morales, along with the late Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chavez, played a critical role in forming the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) as a radical alternative to the neoliberal free-trade agreements which opened up the veins of Latin America for further exploitation by transnational corporations. ALBA promotes social, political and economic integration among Latin American and Caribbean countries to counter the domination and hegemony of North America, the IMF and the World Bank. ALBA has categorically condemned the coup and has called for the restitution of the rightful Bolivian president. One of the first reactionary measures taken by the current interim government was to immediately withdraw from the ALBA alliance, a clear head nod to Washington about where their new allegiances lie.
One thing that has been less emphasized in the wake of the coup is Morales’s role as the champion of climate justice for the Global South, that massive bloc of humanity that has suffered the disproportionate burden of climate change caused by carbon emissions from the industrialized nations. Indeed, the Indigenous leader has been a major source of inspiration for climate activists around the globe, due to his radical indictment of neoliberal capitalism as the root cause of environmental destruction and his insistence that rich nations pay a climate debt to the peoples of the Global South as reparations for the environmental destruction they have caused.
In 2010, Bolivia convened the massive World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, which drew more than 30,000 people from Indigenous movements and environmental justice groups across the globe, including representatives of more than 50 governments — the U.S. not included. The aim was to establish a radical alliance to combat global warming and resource extraction by fossil fuel companies, and to promote a new harmonious relationship with nature, or “Pachamama,” as Morales’s Aymara people call it, that is based on the principals of thousands of years of Indigenous thinking and practice. As Morales puts it:
The capitalist system treats Mother Earth as raw material, but the Earth cannot be understood as a commodity; who could privatize, rent or lease their own mother? I propose that we organize an international movement in defense of Mother nature, in order to recover the health of Mother Earth and re-establish a harmonious and responsible life with her.
Several years later, Bolivia passed the historic Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, which gives legal protection to the country’s natural resources and emphasizes environmental sustainability as central to the common good. The law’s implementation has included more than 2,500 specific anti-pollution projects and conservation programs across the country.
Critics on the environmental left, however, have raised important concerns about Morales’s “social extractivism,” the continued reliance on the mining of fossil fuels – such as natural gas – in order to fund government redistributive programs and poverty alleviation efforts. Although Bolivia (and similar anti-neoliberal government such as Venezuela) aim to redistribute their country’s natural resource wealth, critics argue, any type of extractivism still destroys nature and fuels global warming, contradicting Morales’s promise to protect Pachamama. Additionally, Morales has come under fire for his approval of projects which encroach on Indigenous territory and threaten biodiversity in the Amazon.
At this moment, the future of the South American nation remains unclear. However, what is clear is that Morales has been the most recent victim of U.S. imperialism in the region, due to the fact that he is a sworn enemy of neoliberal capitalism, and a tireless fighter for the poor, the Indigenous and Mother Earth. All people of conscience should oppose this illegal coup and call for an end to the violent repression of protesters by the right-wing interim government forces. We must stand in solidarity with Morales and his Indigenous sisters and brothers during this difficult time.