Coup, COVID, and mass action in Bolivia

Bolivia graphicBy C.J. LAPOINTE

Bolivia is fast becoming one of the worst COVID hotspots on the planet. Health services in Bolivia are completely overwhelmed. Mass graves are filling up, as hospitals can’t contain the crisis. People are so desperate to not get sick or find a treatment that they are willing to try anything, even chlorine dioxide, a dangerous and toxic bleach substance. The use and promotion of chlorine dioxide has its roots in the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, a Colombia-based group that operates in South Florida. A U.S. federal judge ordered them in April to stop promoting the potentially deadly “Miracle Mineral,” which is now gaining popularity in poor and underserved areas across Latin America. President Trump gave this conspiracy a boost by publicly suggesting during a press conference that it may be possible to inject disinfectants to thwart COVID-19.

Legislation promoting the production and sale of chlorine dioxide has been approved by the Bolivian Senate. Even though there is no scientific evidence that chlorine dioxide is useful to treat COVID, the legislation will now make its way to the House for a vote. Finally, it will arrive at the desk of Jeanine Áñez, who took the Bolivian presidency following a coup in November 2019.

The Bolivian city of Cochabamba is one of the worst hit areas, and residents are fearful of getting sick. Many do not trust that health services will be able to provide adequate care and so they are lining up at local pharmacies to pick up chlorine dioxide.

Cochabama also happens to be a base of support for Jeanine Áñez and the opposition coup that ousted the first Indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. Morales and his party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), have governed Bolivia since 2006.

For nine months, the relatively unknown far-right Senator Jeanine Áñez, a white, Christian conservative of European descent, has held the presidency without ever being democratically elected. In June, Glen Greenwald wrote a scathing piece in The Intercept detailing The New York Times admission that it had promoted false reports by the Organization of American States (OAS) of election fraud in Bolivia that were used as the basis for the coup.

Luis Arce Catacora, the MAS’s presidential candidate, is now demanding new elections, but the COVID crisis has allowed the Áñez opposition time to consolidate power and delay elections. Although the health crisis in Bolivia is exacerbated by the political crisis, the MAS still controls both the Senate and the House. Even with a legislative majority, the MAS has proved an ineffective political party for challenging the coup and confronting the health crisis. It was their leadership with a majority in the legislative branch of government that approved the use of chlorine dioxide despite the Ministry of Health warning against its use.

The MAS, a “socialist” party in name only, left the door open to reactionary forces by not having a perspective of turning its “Movement towards Socialism” into a workers’ revolution. Although rooted in an Indigenous working-class movement of thousands of former miners turned coca growers, the MAS functions today through the lens of electoral and legislative methods. As a party, it rose to popularity for its leadership in the struggle of the early 2000s to stop the privatization of water and winning concessions for coca growers through militant struggles. It was during this time that Evo Morales would rise to popularity.

Focused on an electoral perspective, the MAS has proven unable or unwilling to halt the advance of the far right. The central region of the country known as the “Media Luna” became a festering cradle of reaction that plagued the Morales government since his first term. There are very real consequences for the misleadership by the MAS government, and the far-right demonstrated its intentions during last November’s coup in a small town called Vinto, outside Cochabamba. MAS Mayor Patricia Arce was brutally dragged from her home, doused in red paint, and had her hair cut by the far-right opposition.

Prior to the coup, in May 2019, armed forces associated with the far right stormed the legislative building demanding the adoption of resolutions that would give them promotions and deepen the coup’s grip on Bolivian society. When the Senate did not give in to their demands, the military appealed to Áñez after the coup to secure the promotions. Senate leader and MAS member Eva Copa vowed to fight this “unconstitutional” maneuver through the courts.

There are no guarantees in the capitalist courts. They function as an institution of class rule and help protect the interests of capitalists through a legal framework. Just last week, Evo Morales was charged by the Bolivian Attorney General with terrorism and sedition, showing that it is the far right who will nimbly maneuver through the courts to legally frame up and denounce their opponents. Whether or not these accusations are true, a fight centered on winning legal battles in court is a losing strategy for the working class. Regardless of MAS’s uninspired resistance to the coup, the working class and Indigenous communities have a right to determine their own future free of intervention from the U.S. or other imperialist nations.

For the capitalist class, both in Bolivia and internationally, business continues as usual. World imperialist forces have long sought after Bolivia’s mineral-rich resources. During World War II, Bolivian mines supplied tin for the needs of the U.S. war machine. Prior to that, in the 1930s, Dutch Royal Shell and Standard Oil exacerbated existing border disputes over access to trade routes to the Pacific Ocean. The impact of the resulting “Chaco War” between Bolivia and Paraguay, two landlocked countries, began to shape the consciousness of a fledgling working class that gravitated to revolutionary socialist politics and nearly made a revolution in 1952.

Today Chinese and U.S. imperialism are vying for access to extract lithium for the construction of trendy electric vehicles and other tech needs of their leading companies. The companies that gain access to the lithium stand to make massive profits but will have to contend with a working class already agitated by a lack of quality health care during the COVID crisis.

Defying quarantine measures, workers have begun mobilizing again in La Paz. The Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the leading trade union in Bolivia, steeped in revolutionary traditions, brought over 8000 workers and members of peasant organizations like the Tupac Katari to march down from the Alto Plano and into the streets of La Paz on July 14. They demanded “health, education, jobs, and stability of life.” While the far-right-wing business community is calling for a delay in elections, using COVID as a shield to defend Áñez, the COB leadership is calling for new elections on Sept. 6. But for workers, the MAS electoral perspective offers no real way forward.

While the persecution of MAS leaders should be opposed, workers do not need to support the party politically. The Bolivian workers, Indigenous communities, and farmers who look back at their own traditions of class struggle will find an independent path forward, which includes a regroupment of sincere revolutionary forces that can continually mobilize the people in the streets and confront the ruling elite for power.   

Illustration by General Strike Graphics.


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