Symbols are essential to understanding the current turmoil in Bolivia. Since November 10th 2019, the Wiphala flag has been purged from official buildings. Police ripped it from their uniforms, where it had been emblazoned for the last 10 years. Self-declared interim president Jeanine Añez held a large bible when sworn in. Church representatives reportedly said “the Pachamama will never return to the (Government) Palace. Bolivia belongs to Christ."
Timelines and institutional analysis show clearly that Evo Morales was ousted in a coup. The Organization of American States (OAS) suggested new elections due to “irregularities” in the elections of October 20th. By now, statistical analysis shows that even such irregularities may not have existed at all. Yet Morales announced new elections, following OAS recommendations. Despite this, the chief military general “asked” him to resign.
To explain the dispute of images, class, race, and gender relations are fundamental. When the Morales government took office in 2005, it represented a great desire for change. Poverty levels had reached 80 % in rural areas; conflicts raged about privatization of public goods (water) and extraction of natural resources (gas). That discontent led diverse indigenous and social movements to rally behind Morales’ candidacy, claiming neither the state’s institutional set-up nor its actual policies represented them.
The expressed aim of the Morales government’s “transformation process”, condensed in the path-breaking constitution of 2009, was to fundamentally transform the state. Symbolically, this became the Plurinational State of Bolivia. This is what the wiphala flag stands for: a recognition of the majority of people in Bolivia who self-identify as indigenous.
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Changes after 2005 were dramatic. Redistribution policies massively reduced poverty from 63.9% (2004) to 32.7% (2013). Income inequality fell remarkably until 2011. Pensions were introduced even for informal sector workers; public spending on education and health soared; the constitution limited private property; agrarian reform commenced. Highly controversial investor-state dispute settlements were abandoned. A country which hadn't allowed indigenous women to enter parliament now had its first female indigenous justice minister, Casimira Rodríguez.
Yet, this “transformation process” was not only truncated by the recent coup. Conflicts laid bare its structural contradictions, subject to long-existing asymmetrical integration into world economy. Social policies were made possible precisely by deepening extraction. It was the commodities super-cycle with high demand and oil and gas prices that enabled distribution, rather than redistribution. The nationalization of oil and gas extraction, while an economic success and supported by 92 % of society, remained partial; transnational corporations accepted higher taxes and joint ventures with state-owned firms.
Not only did this further the state's dependence on exports, it prevented the diversification of the economy, the build-up of more value-added production industries and protection against volatile world market prices. Predictably, the fiscal deficit rose with falling oil prices. 76 % of Bolivia’s exports are minerals and rare metals, 15.9% agro-industrial products. Since 2015, the trade balance is negative - which it hadn't been since 2005.
In 2010, Bolivia organized the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change, which elaborated far-reaching and agenda-setting declarations on climate change. Actual policies, however, contradicted the declared socio-ecological transformation.
The National Development Plan 2025 (NDP 25), published in 2015, declared Bolivia a regional ‘energy power’, based primarily on fossil fuels and large hydropower dams. Vicepresident García Linera declared:
“The twenty-first century for Bolivia is to produce oil, industrialise petrochemicals, industrialise minerals… We’re seeking out the areas where there’s more gas, where there’s water, sites for dams. Where there is water, it’s like pure gold falling from the sky.”
The plan further contradicted the buen-vivir agenda, potentials for an energy transition, and largely ignored the ecologically negative effects of large-scale hydropower projects. Renewables only make up 2 % of Bolivia’s energy production.
NDP 25 revived the conflict over state-planned roads through the TIPNIS national park. In 2011, indigenous groups, heavily disappointed by infrastructure plans they feared may destroy their territories, marched against the government. Morales put the road project on hold, but both CIDOB (Federation of Indigenous People of Bolivia) and CONAMAQ (National Council of Ayllus and Markas del Qullasuyu) withdrew their support. In 2015, NDP 2025 decrees revived the TIPNIS road, and oil and gas explorations in protected areas, conditioned on ecological mitigation. Many gas and oil concessions overlap with both national parks and indigenous communal land titles, like TIPNIS, exacerbating contradictions.
The consolidation of Morales’ political party, MAS, as a political project itself, within these contradictions, changed who could influence state policies. Ecological fractions within and initiatives outside MAS lost access to decision-making. MAS seemed to co-opt, channel and restrict political participation. Feminist groups long criticized MAS and Morales for downplaying the effects of their own patriarchal attitudes on Bolivian gender relations. Rates of gender-based violence are high in Bolivia; investment in gender policies is no priority.
Morales’ broad base slowly shrank. This reached a tipping point when on February 21, 2016, the government held a referendum to determine if Morales could run for a fourth term. A small majority of the electorate said no. The government resorted to legal mechanisms through parliament, and the constitutional court in 2018 declared that denying Morales’ candidacy would infringe his political rights. In response, criticism of deteriorating practices within MAS from diverse places within Bolivian society grew. The "transformation process" ceased to be their project.
However, the economic and cultural background of those sectors dominating the post-coup scenario is entirely different from those indigenous and environmental movements that criticize Morales for not being radically transformative.
Upper-class white supremacists from eastern provinces, deeply racist and sexist, seem to have formed an alliance with indigenous organizations based primarily in Potosí’s mining sector, which have long-standing conflicts with the MAS. Presidential candidate Carlos Mesa was side-lined; instead, a radicalized group formed around Luis Fernando Camacho. He leads the Santa Cruz Civic Committee and apparently gained police support by promising higher pensions.
Far-right senator Jeanine Añez from Beni declared herself president without necessary quorum. Audio files published by Costa Rican newspaper El Periódico suggest right-wing Brazilian executives may have been involved, who Camacho repeatedly met. The alliance with Marcos Pumari, leader of mining region Potosí's Civic Committee, whose confrontations with MAS over royalties date back to the mining law (2013), enabled this white, homogenous group to claim diversity.
The Civic Committees are similar to chambers of commerce. Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest region, produces around 70% of Bolivia’s food, hosts important gas extraction and hydropower projects and expanded agro-industries. Camacho’s family co-owns the business group Inversiones Nacional Vida with investments in gas, services and insurance companies.
Regional business elites from the very same wealthy eastern provinces, the so-called media luna, heavily opposed Morales’ policies since 2005. Fear of losing privileged access to resources, incipient land redistribution and indigenous communities' growing strength were major factors for escalating these tensions into threats of secession in 2008. Camacho was vice president of the Organización Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC), an organization accused of acting as a violent militia during that conflict.
Negotiations between economic elites and the Morales government pacified the conflict for several years, but implied great concessions to these forces. The MAS opened up to agribusiness proposals. Policies allowing more land to be cleared for agro-industries, however, sharply slowed land reform and contributed to intensified deforestation and recent fires, which in turn horrified indigenous communities.
Now the rift is deeper than ever. The organization of lithium extraction, fundamental for a transition to electric cars, fuelled existing tensions. Protests led by Pumari and post-election pressure led Morales to cancel a deal between recently founded, state-owned Lithium corporation YLB (Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos) and mid-sized German energy systems company ACI Systems that included processing lithium within Bolivia. Morales had presented the first fully Bolivia-produced electric car in September. Yet the Potosí Civic Committee demanded bigger shares of royalties for its region.
The protests after October 20th were first dominated by middle class urban youth, but amplified to broader sectors who protested against Morales for a variety of the reasons outlined above. The conflation of indigenous protestors with MAS and of earlier protests against Morales with coup supporters is highly problematic.
The multiplicity of voices instead reveals a highly heterogeneous, politicized society. The Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia (FSTMB) pointed out Morales’ achievements yet asked him to resign to evade bloodshed. The indigenous peasant union (CSUTCB) demanded to not accept Morales’ resignation and that police operate within the law. Other indigenous groups heavily condemn Morales for never transforming the ‘development model’. They demand energy transition instead of large infrastructure projects, but also hold the Civic Committees around Camacho responsible for rampant fires in Santa Cruz. Feminist groups have condemned the coup, despite earlier criticism of Morales, and the extreme racist and violent attacks by coup supporters and military alike.
In El Alto, both MAS and other movements have mobilized against such attacks to an extent that police withdrew from this urban indigenous centre.
The violent crackdown on MAS supporters and any other mobilizations that condemn the coup is a sign that this heterogeneity is both strength and weakness: Those who marched against Morales in October may now well be subject to severe repression by an extremist right-wing government. Indigenous critique of Morales was never intended to result in a coup, but in democratic transition.
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