Bolivia: “We Are Not Afraid”
Above Photo: From Resumen-english.org
The stamina of the people has prevented the victory that the U.S.-backed coup regime expected in Bolivia. Resistance to the coup has been successful via three strategies –road blockades, nonviolent protests of thousands that gathered force rather than diminishing in the face of massacres, and intensely collective decision-making.
“We the Aymaras, Quechuas, all the Indigenous and original peoples, we have suffered discrimination for centuries,” said a Bolivian who was entering with streams of people to the city of La Paz, the center of governance, to protest the army’s ousting of president Evo Morales on November 10. “They have burned our wiphala,” the flag of Indigenous dignity. “They have said that our Pachamama does not exist,” the spirituality sacred since ancient times.
“Only recently have we begun to rise up demanding dignity.” That recent era refers to the 1990s through the 13 years of Evo Morales’ presidency. One month ago, the spiritual force of Pachamama was honored, decolonizing lesson plans were taught, and an ethic of land to the tiller led to the distribution of 935,000 land titles in a population of eleven million, with almost half the titles going to women. The party called MAS, or Movement toward Socialism, guided these changes, having emerged out of massive grassroots organizing against neoliberalism.
The coup regime that took power in November has acted with fascist consistency then been forced to retreat, a behavior that can only be explained by the strength of the people they are trying to subjugate.
Indigenous protestors are not armed. Following the coup, state security forces have killed 34 civilians. The people being shot at say, “When the police and army fire their weapons, they claim that the bullets are coming from us and that we are killing each other.”
The de facto rulers categorically denied killing anyone. That monstrous claim disintegrated and now they are saying they will compensate for every death with a little over seven thousand dollars to each family.
The U.S.-backed government lies with no remorse. Yet it seems they are being forced to accept elections, though they may well change their minds at any minute, citing any excuse since their only mandate is brute force.
Another Indigenous protestor said, “More than three and one-half million voted for Evo. We are the majority.” In this moment, they hold a super majority of seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. At all levels and across the country, MAS leaders are being persecuted and jailed by the deadly elites who seized power.
The correlation of forces is startling. MAS legislators made their way back into their place of work under the blows of the right-wing. The Chamber of Deputies just passed a law guaranteeing the safety of all Bolivians in the upcoming electoral process. Publically, the coup regime has said they will veto the law of the MAS majority guaranteeing security to all citizens as they vote or run for office because, the right argues, such protection will encourage new waves of popular mobilization.
Why would anyone destroy the healthiest economy in South America?
The poor are defending an agenda already achieved. MAS nationalized subsoil resources and invested in those citizens with the least resources. As a result, the economy flourished, multiplying by four times in size. Extreme poverty fell by half. Millions learned to read and children stayed in school. Universal retirement assistance was achieved, and universal health care was implemented this year. All this was seen in a place that has suffered some of the worst poverty in the hemisphere since the arrival of Europeans, with the cause of that suffering beginning in the Europeans’ exploitation of America’s richest silver veins.
The race-hate of the right-wing in Bolivia is an inverse measure of the success of Indigenous governance since 2006. Bolivia’s current coup-regime president is Jeanine Añez. Beneath her dyed blond hair she possesses beautiful Indigenous features. She sent tweets years ago that said: “I dream of a Bolivia free of Indigenous satanic rituals,” and “The city is not for the Indians, they should go back to the high plain of the Andes, or to the Chaco” where the Guaraní live ancestrally. She erased the tweets but not before they had been preserved by others.
Senator Jeanine Añez, admittedly a puppet, declared herself the head of state after the army deposed a proudly Aymara president, Evo Morales Ayma. He “resigned to protect life,” he said. He had just won his fourth election by more than ten points ahead of the second-runner. Unable to beat him at the polls, the right-wing unleashed terror, under the tutelage of the U.S. embassy.
Leading global economists and political scientists say there is no evidence of fraud, however consumers of rightwing media in Bolivia and beyond are convinced that the elections were fraudulent. Operatives paid by Washington likely created the public relations “fraud” campaign, if history is any guide.
The United States cannot tolerate a successful contending model, or people of color who honor their ancestors.
Morales explained his decision to leave saying, “The families of campesino leaders were told, ‘If your husband does not resign from MAS, we’ll burn you alive.’ The leaders were told, ‘We’ll burn your wife and children.’” Speaking of the head of the Chamber of Deputies, a veteran MAS politician, Morales said, “Victor Borda was treated savagely. The right-wing seized his brother and threatened to burn him alive if he didn’t renounce his politics and position. He had no choice.”
MAS had withstood every ruse to destroy them until the police mutinies and treason of the high command of the army in the days before November 10. Before that point, Morales tried to reason with the right-wing: “We liberated ourselves from the impositions of foreigners and of foreign bands, now we are governed by Bolivians. We practice solidarity and complementarity. We are living with respect for each other and in harmony with Mother Earth. For all these reasons, stop the confrontations! We must turn to dialogue to end the violence.”
His words fell on deaf ears, and his departure opened a hunting season on the majority of the population that voted for MAS.
Among the three historical protagonists mentioned so far — the president of the poor, the coup plotters, and the people — the least discussed are the poor. Their actions and words are there for all to see, but not in the corporate press.
The Blockades of Indigenous Bolivia
More than 72 bloqueos or road blockades across Bolivia reflect Indigenous and MAS preponderance in the countryside which extends to millions of people in El Alto, and in fact, all the highland cities, many of them campesino migrants. These blockades are the nonviolent instrument of struggle that the Bolivian masses have used across decades to win social justice. In November of 2019, blockades made it possible for the social movements to achieve the return of the soldiers to the barracks, a concession wrenched from the coup government. It is a victory that people who believe in freedom should study.
Unlike the murderous blockades of the previous weeks set up by the coup plotters, these ones were convened by the poor to halt the juggernaut of the right. The forces of the right are led by individuals such as Luis Fernando Camacho, a multimillionaire from the lowland agro-industry zone of Santa Cruz who has long pursued a paramilitary approach to ridding the country of working-class leadership. Carlos de Mesa was the favorite candidate of the U.S. State Department, a neoliberal politician who was vice president in 2003 when over 60 Indigenous were killed by the state to protect the status quo of the Washington Consensus.
Partisans of the right call the blockades of Camacho and de Mesa a citizens’ uprising. Their decision-making is autocratic. And their middle-class followers have been lied to grotesquely, while the dangerous ones behaving like paramilitaries have been paid very well.
After the coup triumphed, the shutdown of the major arteries of Bolivia was planned in village assemblies and meetings in the poorest neighborhoods. It was a grave risk for the poor. The right-wing coup regime could only end the blockades of the people by negotiating with the leaders of the popular bases, who are the elected representatives of millions of people in the social movements.
Incredibly, the poor won their demands from arch-conservatives who had tried to kill their president in various ways in weeks prior, and had managed to kill a number of the poor.
The negotiations took place in the presence of the United Nations and Catholic bishops, a reflection of the deep respect in which Evo Morales is held by the international community.
El Alto, the Indigenous working-class city on the edge of the canyon above La Paz, was a nerve-center of organizing even before the coup. They kept Camacho corralled in the airport, as persona non grata, until the government of Evo felt compelled to admit Camacho with a special escort, at which point the Santa Cruz millionaire led the violent marches of elite and middle-class protestors. Popular assemblies to plan the next step took place on every street corner of El Alto, according to mainstream Argentinian journalists hounded out of the country by Camacho.
When the army told president Evo Morales to step down, El Alto had already declared, in effect, a peaceful state of siege. All entries to the city of La Paz below were controlled. They prevented vegetables, chicken, beef products and eggs from entering the city of La Paz. They blocked gas for cooking and transportation.
Mass marches of the poor accompanied the stoppage of provisions. Evo said matter-of-factly, from exile, “The people of El Alto will never be silenced.”
Gathering from across the country, the poor marched down on the city of La Paz “in columns of rural teachers, miners, barrio residents from El Alto, as well as campesinos from Achocalla who withheld their produce that feeds La Paz,” said Freddy Morales, a teleSUR journalist who is himself Aymara. The road to Oruro, the main artery to the rest of the country, had been blocked for 5 days. Campesinos from Achocalla bordering La Paz did not allow the army to enter their municipality; the coup elites did not choose to massacre them.
In rural Sucre (of the department of Chuquisaca), the Indigenous also maintained blockades despite the fact the city, which is the capital of the country’s court system, is home to an exceedingly racist and violent urban right-wing. Tragically, university students serve as the shock troops of the right. They are set upon campesinos like attack dogs.
Meanwhile in Santa Cruz, the center of the most fascist sector of Bolivia led by Camacho, rural and poor people deciding to unblock the roads requested guarantees from the United Nations to protect them from right-wing violence. Campesinos in the most right-wing departments, such as Santa Cruz and Chuquisaca, are routinely denied rights by the local elites, for example, a certain amount of the national budget that goes to smaller locations by law, or the food basket of special products delivered to the elderly. When the coup took place, soldiers had just finished distributing the education subsidy to children, and distribution of a universal retirement benefit to the elderly was about to begin.
The most astonishing example of a blockade is perhaps beyond any definition of bloqueo: the occupation of the entire coca-growing region of Cochabamba by its residents, tens of thousands of families mounting endless road blockades throughout their territory. Their coca is legal, rather than destined for cocaine traffic as is the case in Colombia and Peru. The cocaleros or coca-growers are profoundly woman-led. As farmers they are self-sufficient and hence can sustain their defense of the region for a very long time. The only entrance would be by air. Although the cocaleros were the first to be massacred in the enormous march they organized which was attacked just kilometers outside the city of Cochabamba, the coup regime to date has not dared to try to dislodge the dense bloqueos of men, women and children threaded across the Chapare of Cochabamba like a vast liberated territory.
Their 30-year old leader Andronico Rodríguez, a possible MAS presidential candidate, said to the New York Times, “In less than 24 hours, we can mobilize 100,000 farmers.” Their tenacious resistance is one of the most hopeful protections for democracy in Bolivia. Even more hopeful is the fact they are not alone in their convictions or their courage.
When Bolivian campesinos organize against the traditional elite, they know the risks. Practically the first act of the coup president was to guarantee immunity to soldiers and police for any harm they might cause. The coup government decreed that military spending would be increased by about 5,038,126 U.S. dollars, “for the purpose of repression” in the words of the protestors. In addition, the police have just been resupplied with all the war materiel they used against the poor in November.
The first massacre took place in Sacaba on the 15th of November, just outside the city of Cochabamba, against a predictable target, the cocaleros whose organizing gave birth to Evo Morales. “They were shot from the air and from the ground at the bridge called Huayllani when they arrived there, coming from the coca regions of Cochabamba,” to quote the MAS spokesperson. The cocaleros were planning to gather in the “Plaza 14 de Septiembre” where the massive demonstrations of the 2000 Water War took place. Nearly twenty years ago, the same campesino populations started the stand-off that was joined by the entire city of Cochabamba and prevented the privatization of their water.
Before the massacre of Sacaba, the authorities separated the women from the men and made the women walk behind. The victims say police stole their wallets and cell phones. To enter the city of Cochabamba at that location, about 5 kilometers distant from the city, there is only one bridge that must be crossed, and it was at that bridge that helicopters fired down on the protestors. Nine were killed. Bullets went from a trajectory of above to below, for instance one of the victims was killed by a bullet that entered his head and came out of his chest. Bullets were imbedded in the trees, everywhere, according to witnesses.
Said a protestor who survived, “It was a moment of terror, horrifying to see how the police beat the compañeros, even hit older people.”
The cocaleros in Sacaba did not leave. Campesinos from near and far arrived to accompany them. People brought truckloads of food and water for the protestors.
The second massacre was perhaps more expected, in front of Senkata, the plant of Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) or the natural gas and diesel depository for metropolitan La Paz. Located in the militant and battle-tested city of El Alto above La Paz, neighbors of Senkata had mounted the blockade to protest the coup. The coup regime waited until the lack of fuel was critical in La Paz, and then attacked by land and from the air on November 19. El Alto is mainly an Aymara city but also significantly Quechua, so as in Sacaba, this was a massacre of the Indigenous.
At first, protestors thought at least three had died and 30 people had been injured, but that number kept rising. Nine were killed, 8 of them by bullets. The figure of deaths then rose to 10; while a foreign journalist reported testimonies given to human rights officials that counted 25 mortal victims in Senkata.
Like A Mother’s Rage: Indigenous solidarity
The families of the first 9 people killed in Senkata took the coffins of the massacre victims down the mountain face to La Paz, marching with a multitude of people. Indigenous campesinos from the department of Potosí had arrived to join the marches, as did the bases of the neighborhood associations of El Alto, called FEJUVE. These are the same people who brought down a neoliberal president in the 2003 Gas War, in which the nonviolent resistance of El Alto preserved natural gas for Bolivians.
When they reached La Paz, the Senkata mourners were attacked by the police. Rivers of people poured into the procession, knowing well they could be killed. The massacre victims are treated by the marchers as relatives. The police fired tear gas directly at the families of the dead in the march who were bearing the coffins.
At an earlier point, an Aymara woman from the rural province of Aroma, said, “That assassin Camacho, and the assassin Añez, they murdered campesinos.” Camacho is the ultra-right leader of the street violence leading up to the elections of October 20, while Añez is the ultra-Catholic, and likewise fascist, de facto president. Said the Aymara campesina, “They murdered our sisters and brothers.” It is a kinship their enemies cannot comprehend.
The intensely collective decision-making of the poor is nourished by various roots, including ancient local governance structures in which power is rotated and consensus sought; extremes of exploitation that gave birth to an extremely mature union movement; and careful lessons drawn from a failed national revolution, a nightmarish descent into neoliberalism, and subjection to U.S. military force under the guise of the war on drugs. Millions of people who share these histories are accustomed to making their own grassroots democracy, and they often instruct MAS rather than the other way round.
These are the masses who are routinely “detained, arrested and, lamentably, tortured,” said the MAS spokesperson at the Sacaba Massacre. Over one thousand are now imprisoned by the coup government. “This is the democracy that the de facto government was looking for, the democracy of bloodshed, the democracy of mourning, the democracy of suffering.” In private, human rights investigators have been told of numerous sexual assaults committed by the police and army.
As in Honduras after the 2009 coup, people keep saying, “We are not afraid.” They are saying the same phrase across the border in Chile. In Bolivia, women are quoting the heroic woman of the mines Domitila de Barrios Chungara, who survived the San Juan Massacre of 1967 when the miners had pledged part of their wages to the forces of Che Guevara, and Domitila was captured, tortured and brutalized, losing her baby in the womb. She always said, “Do not be afraid.”
The right-wing reserves a special fury for Indigenous women who exercise their right to protest. Before MAS won state power, maternity was lived by the poor as an often tragic condition. Under MAS, Bolivia has become one of the most desirable countries to be poor, Indigenous and female. Indigenous women are the primary guardians of their languages and the resistance they inspire. They honor the ancient past, the sacred world, and the children who will carry these values into the future. Attacked in a public context by adherents of the coup, they have been beaten, made to kneel, and forced to confess to the “crime” of supporting the political party of the poor. Some have been forced to walk many kilometers barefoot under insults and blows. They are subjected to having their hair shorn off publically and their skirts torn. Aggression from the right-wing against women who wear Indigenous clothing, the pollera, was a principal reason why Morales resigned. He said to the right, “My mother wore a pollera. You are not going to hit our mothers,” and of course, the right-wing continued to do so.
It is worth noting, the same punishments were dealt to heroines of the past, such as the mother of the leader of an Aymara rebellion that shook the republican oligarchs in the 1800s; in her nineties at the time, the rebel’s mother was raped. Bartolina Sisa and Gregoria Apaza, who are known to every schoolchild, commanded troops and negotiated alliances among the Quechua and Aymara and nearly brought down the colonial regime in the siege of La Paz in 1781, not once but twice. Half the besieged people of La Paz died of starvation and the whites have never forgotten that moment. The treatment of Bartolina and Gregoria when they were captured was brutal, to say the least; Gregoria’s brother and Bartolina’s husband took the sacred name of Tupak Katari, and he is the one constantly referred to in the phrase remembered by the poor as he was being torn limb from limb by the state: “You can kill me now, but I will return as millions.”
Bartolina Sisa is remembered in the name of the largest grassroots women’s organization of Bolivia. Thousands of “Bartolina Sisas” decided to conduct a massive march of women in the department of Cochabamba and the city by the same name before Evo’s decision to resign under army pressure. Mostly Quechua Indigenous in that part of the country, the women intended for their moral force to halt the violence of the middle classes and elites. The campesinas marched with their children. All hell was unleashed against them by the paramilitary youth of the right, trained with U.S. funding. One mayor in particular, formerly a campesino union leader, was dealt the ritual punishment described above as well as doused in red paint, mobbed by a horde of furious youth, and threatened with losing her life. She remained defiant; her name is Patricia Arce and she declared that she would gladly die for the politics of the Movement against Socialism. She represents the infinite danger posed by Indigenous and campesina women to the world of privilege that the right-wing is trying to reinstate.
As the protestors say repeatedly and in infinite ways, “We are the true children of Tupak Katari. We are the original peoples of the wiphala.”
“Our fathers have been massacred,” said an older man marching, “and now, they continue to assassinate our sons and daughters, our grandchildren. We are not going to permit that they ever again massacre us, we are simply not going to permit it.”
The past month offers a glimpse of what lies ahead. On December 7th, an enormous gathering of grassroots MAS delegates in Cochabamba started crafting a strategy to win back, through the vote, what was stolen from them via violence: A government of the poor. Evo Morales is in constant conversation with his people, and they elected him as the campaign manager.
The Indigenous president ousted by the military described the challenges of the present, addressing the social movements when he arrived in Mexico, after great peril, as an asylee invited by the state. He said to the poor through the television cameras, “You are our liberation.”