The Roots of the Right-Wing Coup in Bolivia

The Roots of the Right-Wing Coup in Bolivia

The international left must name what has happened in Bolivia for what it is: a popular mobilization against alleged electoral fraud that was sabotaged by the neo-fascist right.

Luis Fernando Camacho in La Paz on November 10 (Javier Mamani/Getty Images)

Since Bolivian President Evo Morales was ousted in a right-wing coup in November 2019, thirty-one protesters have been killed and hundreds more have been wounded. The New York Times characterized this violence as “ethnic rifts . . . burst[ing] into view.” But the resurgence of the right in Bolivia did not come out of nowhere. These are not random acts of violence but rather the culmination of the efforts of highly organized white-supremacist groups with transnational ties. Recognizing these facts does not mean we must suspend criticism of Morales or romanticize him and his party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), as champions of the poor. We must recognize the limitations of MAS—to understand how and why the coup surfaced when it did, and to think about how the left might re-align in this post-Morales era.

What Happened in Bolivia?

When Morales was re-elected for a fourth term on October 20 with 45.3 percent of the vote, many of his detractors argued, albeit with no clear evidence, that the vote was fraudulent. Morales needed a 10 percent lead to win over his opponent, Carlos Mesa, in the first round of elections, but the vote count suddenly stopped at about 8 p.m. on October 20. The difference then, with 84 percent of the votes in, was enough to give Mesa a second round. When the vote count began again almost twenty-four hours later, the difference had grown to 10.2 percent, eliminating the need for a second round.

The Organization of American States (OAS) issued a preliminary report on November 10 finding “serious irregularities” in the election. As scholars Linda Farthing and Olivia Arigho-Stiles noted at NACLA, “Although the Morales government accepted the OAS audit as binding, questions have been raised about the organization’s impartiality and accuracy.” Nevertheless, Morales called for new elections in light of the report’s claim to have found “clear manipulations” of the voting system.

Soon after, the streets erupted in violent opposition protests. No one predicted what happened next—except perhaps the people who planned it. Luis Fernando Camacho, a forty-year old lawyer and head of the Comité Pro Santa Cruz (ProSanta Cruz Civic Committee, a regional business organization), who had long been riling up opposition to Morales, surfaced as the leader of the anti-Morales protests that wracked Bolivia for three weeks following the election. In Sucre, Bolivia’s capital, opponents lit the electoral court’s regional headquarters on fire. In La Paz, police shot tear gas at anti-MAS protesters, who threw firecrackers in return. Middle-class kids threw dynamite at cops. A crowd of mostly middle-class students utilized makeshift slingshots with rocks and stones to protect themselves. Each side accused the other of starting the violence. In at least three Bolivian cities, the police (apparently at the urging of Camacho and other right-wing leaders) declared mutinies and joined anti-government protests, a clear sign that parts of the security forces were withdrawing their support for Morales.

Armed forces commander Williams Kaliman suggested that Morales resign to diffuse the crisis. So he did: Morales stepped down, flying to the rural province of Chapare where he began his political career and then seeking asylum in Mexico. The nation’s vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera resigned, too, as did the heads of both chambers of congress, after protesters threatened their relatives and burned down one of their houses. In subsequent days, right-wing political figures ransacked Morales’s Cochabamba home and burned his possessions. On November 11, Camacho literally fulfilled his promise to “bring the Bible back to the palace of government,” hand-delivering a Bible to the presidential palace in downtown La Paz along with a Bolivian flag and a resignation letter he wanted Morales to personally sign.

The forced resignations paved the way for the ascension of the second vice president of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, a fifty-two-year-old fervent Catholic and lawyer from the northeastern region of Beni. Áñez, a member of a small far-right party, the Plan Progress for Bolivia-National Convergence (PPB-CN), proclaimed herself president on November 12 before an almost empty legislature. While she was technically in line for the presidency after the resignations of the president, vice president, and heads of the legislature, there was no quorum in the Senate session in which she declared herself head of state. Echoing Camacho, she thrust a massive Bible into the air and proclaimed, “The Bible has returned to the palace!”

Later that day, anti-Morales protesters celebrated in Santa Cruz. Right-wing and neo-fascist opposition activists stormed through indigenous-led protests and burned the wiphala, the multicolored flag that represents unity of distinct indigenous tribes. Police in Santa Cruz ripped the same symbol from the sleeve of their uniforms.

The nation’s military and police threw their support behind Áñez and ramped up their violent repression of largely peaceful protests. Within twenty-four hours of her ascension, the streets of La Paz and Cochabamba, cities bustling with protests days earlier, were empty except for the police, military, and self-appointed neighborhood militias. Two days later, Áñez issued an executive order allowing the military to use force without legal consequence (essentially granting them impunity). Áñez has also said Morales will face prosecution if he returns to Bolivia. She and other right-wing leaders have had MAS supporters and journalists arrested and deported Cuban doctors. She suggested at one point that MAS, undoubtedly still Bolivia’s largest and most popular political force, will be banned from future elections.

November 15 saw the deadliest crackdown in Bolivia in fourteen years, when security forces killed nine protesters near the Huayllani bridge in Sacaba, Cochabamba, and gravely injured hundreds. Indigenous and peasant protesters hailing from six coca-farmer federations were attempting to march from the small city to the department’s capital when they were met with a military and police cordon. As the peaceful march attempted to advance, soldiers and police officers fired tear gas and live bullets. Guadalberto Lara, the director of the town’s Mexico Hospital, told the Associated Press it was the worst violence he’d seen in his thirty-year career. Families of the victims held a candlelight vigil that night. A tearful woman put her hand on a casket and asked, “Is this what you call democracy? Killing us as if were nothing?”

The following Tuesday, protesters in the largely indigenous city of El Alto rallied outside a gas plant in order to cut off La Paz’s main source of fuel and food. They were met also with military fire; soldiers killed eight of them. This violence has left the Bolivian left in shambles, and the international left horrified and outraged by ongoing human rights violations.

Fascist Roots: Race, Money, and Regionalism

While many have portrayed Bolivia’s right as a creation that grew in reaction to Morales, there is a long history of right-wing separatist organizing in Santa Cruz, the eastern Bolivian department that makes up roughly a third of the country’s territory (and is responsible for a similar portion of Bolivian GDP). In the nineteenth century, Santa Cruz reaped the benefits of the mining resources in the western highlands. But in the mid-twentieth century, the United States began to invest millions of dollars in lowland agro-industrial development, helping forge a new entrepreneurial-minded elite in Santa Cruz. A highway linking important highland and lowland regions of the country was completed, and feeder roads between sugar mills and important sugarcane-producing properties were developed with U.S. funds. The United States also provided credit and technical assistance to large-scale producers to purchase new equipment and expand their processing capacity. The city of Santa Cruz grew rapidly, and streams of people pushed off increasingly small plots of land in the overcrowded highlands moved to the lowlands seeking new opportunities in the expanding agricultural industry and related commerce.

Today, the capital city of Santa Cruz has overtaken La Paz as a magnet for investment and opportunity. The 1990s discovery of South America’s second-largest natural gas deposits to the south of Santa Cruz led to a new era of prosperity, attracting multinational corporations and driving huge real-estate developments, such as the $500 million Urubó Village project.

This rapid economic development in the second half of the twentieth century created new claims for a distinctive eastern racial and territorial identity. Linguistic distinctions between highlander and lowlander, Indian and mestizo, bolster claims to land and natural resources by shifting the focus away from economics and onto race and ethnicity. “Cruceño,” for instance, was once a term used to describe a person of pure Spanish blood, while “Camba,” a Guaraní word, described dark-skinned indigenous peasants tied to plantations via debt peonage. More recently, however, elites have appropriated the term Camba for themselves: de-Indianizing it, whitening it, and making it an acceptable designation for elites. Camba has become a regional rather than a racial term, referring to anyone born in that lowland zone.

The majority of Bolivia’s gas deposits and 42 percent of its agricultural output comes from Santa Cruz, and regional elites have advocated for autonomy in order to maintain white European control over these resources. They are increasingly influenced by Brazilian elites and value a U.S.-centric model of consumption and Westernized images of beauty, urban development, and large-scale monocultures and extraction. They have managed to frame their struggles in an ethno-racial and territorial discourse about “freedom” and “independence,” which they knew would rally many more to their side.

When Morales first came to power in 2007, Santa Cruz’s ruling class was fearful of a radical redistribution of land-holding patterns in the region, where more than 90 percent of the land is owned by 7 percent of the population. Santa Cruz elites mobilized large meetings and marches in their region to call for autonomy from the western half of the nation in 2008. The protests called for independence for four contiguous lowland departments—Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija. They utilized lowland indigenous cultures like Guaraní in order to call for a state that centered its own indigenous peoples.

It was this same elite that backed another attempted coup plot against Morales a decade ago. The Podemos Political Party (not to be confused with the Spanish party of the same name), in cahoots with the ProSanta Cruz Civic Committee, attempted a coup in April 2009. It was said to be funded by Branko Marinkovic, who built a cooking oil empire and was accused of providing $200,000 to thugs to carry out a plot to kill Morales. His fortune came from the Santa Cruz agro-industrial boom of the 1950s, when Branko’s late father set up what is now one of the country’s largest soy and sunflower oil plants. After the Bolivian-Croatian oligarch’s plot failed in 2009, he fled to the United States, where he was given asylum, and then relocated to Brazil. Today, Marinkovic is an ardent supporter of Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro.

While the fierce battle for autonomy continued to rage in Bolivia, Morales made a series of pacts with the agricultural elite of Santa Cruz that to a certain extent quelled their resistance. He only distributed state lands to peasants, not the highly unequal and contested latifundio lands (large agricultural holdings). By 2010, MAS had reached an accord with the eastern business elite. Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a former guerrilla fighter and Marxist theoretician, went so far as to affirm in 2014 that the MAS government would not be a rival to the Santa Cruz business community, but rather an ally for economic growth. Little by little, the agrarian revolution and a more radical redistributive agenda was stalled.

These concessions didn’t prevent the continued resentment and opposition of Santa Cruz capital to Morales. Luis Fernando Camacho emerged from this same class. He has been known to tweet photos with Marinkovic in Brazil (he called Marinkovic “his great friend”). Before taking a leading role in this year’s coup, Camacho had spent years directing an overtly fascist separatist organization called the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (the UJC, the youth wing of the ProSanta Cruz Civic Committee), which gained international attention when it directed violence against indigenous informal street vendors during Marinkovic’s failed coup.

The UJC has deep roots in the Santa Cruz far right, with a history linked to the migration of German Nazis to South America after the end of the Second World War. Carlos Valverde Barbery, the Cruceño who founded the UJC in 1957, had close ties to Klaus Barbie, the notorious “Butcher of Lyon,” who escaped to Bolivia with a false U.S. passport after the war. Protected and employed by U.S. intelligence agents because of his police skills and anticommunist zeal, Barbie worked as an interrogator and torturer for Bolivian dictators Hugo Banzer and Luis García Meza. Ironically, Barbie also had frequent dealings with Israel to supply arms to Latin American countries and oversaw various underground paramilitary organizations. UJC tactics included weapons training and the use of literature from Nazi youth brigades to inculcate members into the group—tactics that have survived to the present day.

The UJC now functions as both a political wing of the ProSanta Cruz Civic Committee and an underground paramilitary organization. Publicly, this civic organization consists of a board of directors, a president, a vice president, and a secretary who make practical policy decisions. Privately, UJC members train as foot soldiers, or what the organization calls the grupo de rescate (rescue unit). During my fieldwork with the landless peasant movement from 2006 to 2008, the UJC served as the shock troops for the latifundistas. In land occupations known as Yuquises in August 2004, the UJC utilized paramilitary weaponry to kidnap and torture peasants. Its members have also publicly beaten, whipped, and intimated indigenous women and men on the streets of Santa Cruz. They often publicly exclaimed that they were defending their culture and the city of Santa Cruz from more “invasions” of Collas (indigenous peoples from the highlands).

Left-Wing and Indigenous Discontent

This fall’s unfolding pattern of rightist revanchism, the role of oligarchic forces in funding opposition, and the final arbitrating role played by the military all point to a highly organized right-wing coup. But Morales’s administration had already been weakened by the way he and his cabinet had alienated many left and indigenous movements over three terms in office. As Aymara intellectual Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui notes, “It’s key [for us] to also understand the process of increased division and degradation that the social movements suffered during the tenure of Evo Morales. The movements who were initially the president’s support base were divided and degraded by a left that would allow only one possibility and wouldn’t allow autonomy.”

Lowland indigenous peoples and their supporters were particularly critical of Morales’s extractivist agenda. In many cases, the Morales government failed to consult with local communities about extractive projects despite this being written into the constitution. Indigenous groups argued that his support of the soy, cattle, and hydroelectric power industries and hydrocarbons exploration in eastern Bolivia led to the exploitation of low-income and indigenous Bolivians, wreaked havoc on the environment, and caused community displacement.

Many on the left had also become increasingly frustrated with Morales’s failure to respect the Constitution (approved by 61 percent of the electorate by referendum during Morales’s first term in office). In 2016, Morales pushed through a referendum that asked Bolivian citizens to allow him to run for a fourth term. Fifty-one percent of voters said no, but through a series of legally dubious maneuvers, he ignored these results and was approved to run by the constitutional court. The referendum became the rallying cry of the urban middle classes and regional civic committees hoping to unseat Morales but unable to do so electorally, but even those who once supported Morales were growing increasingly frustrated with his desire to hold onto power.

Concerns arose about other aspects of his style of rule. Commentators like Rivera Cusicanqui, sociologist Maria Teresa Zegada Claure, and journalist Linda Farthing have highlighted MAS’s penchant for centralizing power by absorbing movements into the state, establishing a hierarchical structure of governance and control built around a powerful leader. MAS has strategically demobilized radical movements by incorporating key leaders into positions of power within the government while making it illegal for landless people to occupy latifundios—despite the tactic serving as a key component of the struggle to redistribute vast (and illegal) landholdings in eastern Bolivia. By 2014, social movements were a shadow of their former selves, with leaders either in the government or in organizations controlled by the government—or otherwise demoralized. Alongside middle-class economic resentment and cries of fraud or corruption from across the political spectrum, this weakening made the ground ripe for a military coup in 2019.

Rightist Resurgence

In early December, MAS held a massive assembly in Cochabamba to reorganize the party and popular organizations to take steps to confront Bolivia’s social and political crisis. They unanimously agreed that “the right-wing parties accused the MAS of electoral ‘fraud’ causing confusion with the help of the Organization of American States (OAS), to carry out the coup d’état and submit the Bolivian people to a dictatorship, exempting military and police officials from offense and liability for their genocidal crimes” Morales, in exile in Mexico at the time, has since come to Argentina, where he thanked social movements for trusting him to be the campaign manager for the 2020 elections and promised to find a candidate to represent MAS. “I’m grateful for the trust shown by appointing me as a campaign leader,” he tweeted. “We will choose a unitary candidate and we will win the election in the first round again. Thank you for not abandoning me, I will always be with you all. Together we will continue making history as we have until now. United we will win!”

Meanwhile, on December 12, Camacho received a warm welcome from the think tank Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., where he was invited as a guest. The secretary general of the OAS greeted Camacho in D.C.; the two were photographed together hand in hand. Despite attempts by Code Pink to disrupt the event, a rather large group of Bolivians interjected to defend Camacho as their leader. The United States now has a clear interest in propping up a leader like Camacho to promote “democracy” in the region.

The international left must name what has happened in Bolivia for what it is: a popular mobilization against alleged electoral fraud that was sabotaged by a right-wing, neo-fascist coup. In condemning this act, we should not shut out left critiques by Bolivians of their leadership. As scholars Jeff Webber and Forrest Hylton wrote, “Those parts of the international left based in imperial countries need to insist on the right of Bolivians to self-determination free of outside intervention.”

To stand up to the consolidated right-wing in Bolivia, the left will have to create a strong, united front that cuts across historic divides. No one left sector alone can take on the neo-fascists; instead, coca growers, miners, trade unionists, and indigenous people will need to come together. As Rivera Cusicanqui has noted, this will be increasingly difficult in a politically and ethnically fragmented Bolivia. A process of great uncertainty, institutional fragility, and economic instability lies ahead. She argues that entire political class fell with the coup, not just Evo Morales. Now, the international left should support the radical women and indigenous movements on the front lines of struggle in Bolivia.

Bolivian movements have been some of the strongest and most powerful in the globe. They have a history of militancy and have already begun to resurface on the streets and in the plazas of Cochabamba and La Paz. These movements are strong enough to envision a Bolivia beyond Morales and beyond the fascist right. As Rivera Cuscicanqui said in the days after the violence, “The struggle for autonomy, liberation and sovereignty of indigenous peoples did not begin and end with Evo Morales. Indigenous peoples, social movements, [and] leftist union organizers will rise again.”

Nicole Fabricant teaches anthropology at Towson University in Maryland. She is author of Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle over Land (UNC Press, 2012). With Bret Gustafson, she co-authored Remapping Bolivia: Resources, Indigeneity and Territory in a Plurinational State (SAR Press, 2011). She is on the editorial board of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) and has written extensively on resource extraction and social movements in Bolivia.

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