dispatches across boundaries of states, and states of mind
Author: Carwil Bjork-James
Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. (My opinions are my own, and not my employer's.) Author of The Sovereigns Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia (sovereignstreet.org). I conduct immersive and historical research on disruptive protest, grassroots autonomy, state violence, and indigenous collective rights in Bolivia.
A flood of new declarations from politicians and official involved in the 2019 ouster of Evo Morales have come out. These declarations have accelerated because the matter is now the subject of a criminal investigation that led to the arrest of Jeanine Áñez. This post revises and updates my January 2020 coverage of accounts of Morales’ overthrow; the original text remains online there. Since both posts are intended to gather historical evidence and illuminate critical questions, I‘m avoiding using the word “coup d‘ètat” here. Readers are invited to apply their own definition to the mounting facts, as I have elsewhere.
What’s at stake
Without a doubt, the post-electoral protests against President Evo Morales, his sudden resignation under pressure from both protesters and the military, and the unexpected succession of Jeanine Áñez (previously, second vice president of the Senate) are the most significant events of Bolivian political life in 2019. The hinge point of these events was the dramatic week stretching from November 8 to 15, during which the police and military joined protesters as central actors; significant transactions occurred behind closed doors; acts of violence and arson targeted politicians on all sides; uncertainty surrounded presidential succession; and finally, a remobilized military killed a shocking number of people in four dramatic days.
I want to offer here some detailed accounts of what happened during that pivotal week and lay out the crucial questions as to whether, when, and how the overthrow of Morales was planned.
Why did an inexperienced junior senator with no mandate get empowered to lead a disastrous coup, unleashing the deadliest month in 15 years in Bolivian politics? How did a military “suggestion” claiming to head off bloodshed so rapidly lead to operations against civilians that cost many more lives than had been lost in the previous three years (let alone the three weeks of protest since the election)? In short, to what extent was a unified planning process (what we might call a coup plot) at the heart of this political transition?
Put differently, do we understand Evo Morales’ overthrow, Jeanine Áñez’s succession, and the military shakeup that followed the result of:
The foresight and planning of a small circle of actors. Did someone in the civic movement set her up? Work out a deal with those in the military who craved a crackdown? There are real signs of premeditation, coordination, and alliances among political forces and people within the military who might have a crackdown as a goal.
A convergence of fearful choices that led to a disastrous transition. Did the military leadership believe a quick transition would de-escalate an increasingly deadly confrontation on November 10? Did multiple actors think confirming someone, any civilian at all, was preferable to prolonging interim military rule and nightly violence on November 12? The real consequences of fear, urgency, distrust, violence, and reactions to violence that led people to act without considering the worst-case scenario that could emerge.
Since plotting is necessarily a closed-door activity, we couldn’t fully know the answers to these questions on November 10 or 15. But since these are matters of public concern and the principal actors are talking to journalists, we are getting more and more details (all possibly filtered through self-justifications and political ambitions) about what exactly happened when. What follows is an evolving list of sources for those of us trying to understand what happened in detail.
I’m reposting this fieldwork newsletter account that I wrote in 2010 because it feels relevant to current conversations about narrating American history.
Imagine for a moment the following scenario:
There’s a formal diplomatic function between the United States and France, in which the visiting French president is honoring a hero of the Franco-American effort during the American Revolutionary War. Military and civil honors are being accorded to Thomas Jefferson, say, or the Marquis de Lafayette.* The French President is there, before a special session of the United States Congress. Picture the well of the House, the assembled guests, the audience of Americans watching on video screens on the streets outside the Capitol. The first to speak, on behalf of the United States Government is Joe Biden. He strides to the podium, welcomes the French President, and begins a speech. He remembers the revolutionary era as a period of liberation for the American continent, a key point in a still unfinished process. Then he says we must think of the revolutionary period as two distinct struggles for independence and self determination: the American Revolution we all know, extending through the War of 1812; and the struggles Native Americans fought against invasion during the same decades. He says we must remember as American heroes Tecumseh as well as Jefferson, Blackhawk as much as Lafayette. For good measure, he adds Nat Turner to the list. The Age of Liberation we celebrate as the birth of our nation, he argues, will only be fulfilled when Native peoples have self governance and Blacks have ended oppression and racism against them.
I’m sure I can imagine this scene. You can too; hopefully, you just have. But those words out of the mouth of our current President or Vice President probably seem impossible. At least, I’m confident I won’t hear them. And I’m confident that if I did hear them, I would break into tears with the unexpected justice of the situation.
I mention this scenario not just because it represents a good goal, or underscores the place of talking about history in righting historic wrongs. I mention it most of all because changing the national context, it is exactly what I witnessed on the 26th of March in Sucre. The figure in question was not Thomas Jefferson or Lafayette, but Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mestiza military commander in the wars against the Spanish from 1809 to 1825. Born in the town of Chuquisaca (now named Sucre after her contemporary military and political leader), she fought for the independence of both Argentina and Bolivia in a war in which she saw four of her sons and her husband die. It was also a war during which she gave birth to a daughter. Azurduy is embraced by nationalists and pro-indigenous activists, as an Argentine and a Bolivian, as a woman and as a soldier.
The speech was given not by Joe Biden, of course, but by Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera. Before becoming Vice President, he was a partisan of a guerrilla movement of the 1980s and 90s, a professor of sociology, and a moving force within a leftist theory collective in La Paz called Comuna.
It is one thing to sit in a graduate classroom and learn about the extended history of South America’s Age of Revolution, to learn how the indigenous revolts of the 1770s and 1780s presaged the independence wars of the early 19th century. It is a different and altogether remarkable thing to watch a country’s national leadership embrace that narrative as a way of understanding its past. One of the better aspects of fieldwork has been the opportunity to do both.
On May 21 and 22, the United States government arrested Arturo Carlos Murillo Prijic, the former minister of government under the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, his chief of staff Sergio Rodrigo Mendez Mendizabal, and three of Murillo’s long-time associates. These include Murillo’s childhood friend Luis Berkman Littman, his son Bryan Samuel Berkman, and Argentine lawyer Philip Lichtenfield. The men are charged with money laundering and corrupt practices surrounding the Áñez government’s purchase of riot control munitions.
Based on the facts laid out in the indictment (Murillo is “Co-Conspirator 1”), confirmed by prior document releases in Bolivia since June 2020, this scheme is best understood not as an arms company bribing Murillo and Mendez to secure a contract, but rather the joint effort by the men involved to interpose the Berkmans’ shell company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, into an existing arms supply arrangement between a Brazilian arms manufacturer and the Bolivian government. This was done at a substantial mark-up, generating between $2 and $3 million, some $600 thousand of which were recycled back to Mendez, Murillo, and an unnamed Ministry of Defense official.
Since the public indictment provides a detailed timeline, we now know that this corrupt scheme originated in the first week of the Áñez government, before the government was even recognized by opponents, while blood was still on the ground from the Sacaba massacre, and before the second mass killing at Senkata.
I think about this crisis moment all the time; I’ve studied it intensely to understand who did what when, how hardline officials came in with guns blazing, killing more with the police and military in ten days than Bolivian security forces had killed in the past decade of policing protests. What I had not imagined, however, was that this first week was also a time for them to think about profiteering.
Arturo Murillo’s dramatic week
The week of November 10th through 16th, 2019, was a momentous one for Bolivia and for conservative hardliner Arturo Murillo.
At 49, Amy Coney Barrett is four years older than me, and has just been given a lifetime appointment to the US Supreme Court. Her appointment is the culmination of a generation of efforts by the Federalist Society and allies to engineer the Supreme Court into a brake on the emerging social democratic politics of a multiracial and economically unequal America. It is the last act of an unprecedented decade of obstruction of Federal judiciary appointments by a Republican Senate majority that represents a minority of Americans. Barrett herself is the standard-bearer of a judicial philosophy that upholds the intentions of eighteenth century lawmakers in a twenty-first century society, as well as personally committed to religious and community politics that would roll back a half-century of feminist social transformation.
Despite all this, our existing institutional arrangements will give Amy Coney Barrett the power to review the laws of this country well into the 2060s, long after the United States has ceased to a majority-white country, and when Millennials and Generation Z will rightly be democratically shaping their own present and future.
I promise you that the Constitution itself is less sacred than the right of my children and children’s children to not have their freedom overseen by Amy Coney Barrett in 2060.
So how can we prevent that future? Here’s a list of strategic options, including those already in circulation, for the coming months and the years and decades beyond. We too can strategize in terms of decades, outflanking the regressive minority that brought us Justice Barrett.
First, our mentality must change. We must divest ourselves of the notion that the current Constitution and the Supreme Court are sacred. Only rarely has the Court marched ahead of society in the fight for greater justice (notably, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda); mostly it has played a role of cementing widespread changes already underway (Roe, Obergefell), or even worse standing in the way of transformative progress (Bakke) and rolling back critical protections (Shelby County v. Holder). If we want a visionary court again, we will have to fight for one, and not offer compromise justices that split the difference between the parties (looking at you, Merrick Garland) or between liberal identity politics and corporate power (Elana Kagan). With respect to the Constitution, virtually every other country in the world has written a new constitution since 1945, and collective notions of human rights have dramatically expanded worldwide. We’re overdue to catch up. The trifecta of an unrepresentative Senate, a majority-canceling Electoral College, and a lifetime-appointed Supreme Court is no holy trinity. Get over your allegiance to these institutions and the flawed, outdated and political document that created them.
Impeach Brett Kavanaugh, who committed perjury in his nomination hearings. Congress could do this. Controversial, but not as controversial as having someone who lied about sexual assault sitting on the court for a generation.
Expand and nominate to the Federal judiciary: There really is a backlog of cases in the Federal courts and plenty of candidates waiting.
Amend the constitution and enshrine the rights Barrett doesn’t believe in. While constitutional amendment is an exhausting process, the Equal Rights Amendment has already been ratified by 38 states, and just needs formal acceptance and some legal defense. A Biden administration could do this unilaterally, though there will be legal wrangling to follow up.
Legislate Roe. There’s draft legislation to do this, the Women’s Health Protection Act: “A health care provider has a statutory right under this Act to provide abortion services, and may provide abortion services… without any of the following limitations or requirements.” This legislation does away with a generation of debate as to whether the Constitution itself provides the right to abortion, by making that right a matter of law.
Make human rights treaties legally enforceable in Federal Courts. The US is signatory to a raft of global and hemispheric treaties enshrining a variety of human rights, but their enacting legislation prohibits citizens from raising claims from them in court. Reverse this.
Ratify the American Convention on Human Rights and thereby allow the Inter-American American Court on Human Rights to issue binding protections for human rights, reviewing Supreme Court rulings. This is the system that most of the hemisphere lives under, and it sets a high floor for human rights across Latin America.
Incorporate radical transformations of our country’s identity, institutions, and constitution into mass movements. Much of my last dozen years has been spent documenting how social movements revolutionized Bolivian politics. One important ongoing demand of those movements was radical constitutional reform in which everyday people and grassroots leaders rewrote the constitution from top to bottom. New visions were inserted and old structures abolished. What made this process possible was that instead of thinking about a “movement to amend” the political structures of society, this was a movement to reconceptualize what Bolivia is, into a plurinational, autonomy-centered society in which indigenous peoples rule themselves. Everything from history to national identity sense of self was up for grabs. A new constitution was the by-product of far more radical transformation.
Keep fighting for the world we want. Don’t get locked in a defensive crouch about Barrett and her five new best friends. When they come to say we can’t have universal health care, stabilize the Earth’s climate, remake criminal justice, or rethink our society, take those moments as opportunities to re-build the kinds of institutions we need to achieve these real goals.
As the United States’ overly romanticized Founding Fathers once wrote, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”
Today’s New York Times is highlighting (with a quote from me) the growing number of Indigenous politicians and parties (en castellaño) claiming space in Andean politics. Different individuals and collectives are making the case for indigenous autonomy, post-extractivist economic models, accountability to the grassroots, and internal democracy (vs. centralized hyper-partisanship).
In Ecuador and Bolivia, this often means challenging the official standard-bearers of the left: Rafeal Correa’s chosen successor Andrés Arauz, and the Evo Morales/Luis Arce-led Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP).
Despite narrowly being shut out of today’s Ecuadorian presidential runoff, Pachakutik will be the second-largest party in the new parliament. As Pachakutik’s Yaku Pérez fought for second place in the first-round election in February, Correa’s party made it clear they would much rather face a neoliberal banker than debate extractivism, indigenous rights, and democracy in the general election. Pachakutik and the Ecuadorian Indigenous movement, which backed a late 2019 uprising against neoliberal policies, is calling for null votes in protest today and promises to continue its fight in parliament and through street protest no matter who wins. “We will permanently remain firm in our horizon of resistance,” the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador declared in mid-March, “and we will establish other mechanisms of struggle to make a path for the social and popular demands of the country.”
Pachakutik and the Democratic Left (Izquierda Democrática) have agreed on an alliance in the National Assembly, where they won 27 and 18 seats respectively (32% of the body), have proposed a joint agenda, and are seeking independent allies. If they attract five additional legislators, they will comprise the largest delegation, and regardless will be essential votes for whoever wins today’s election.
In Bolivia, regional elections wrap up today with four run-offs for governor. In three of those, independent Indigenous candidates are challenging the MAS from the left. Three independent left candidates also will govern El Alto, Trinidad, and Cobija as mayors: Eva Copa, Cristhian Cámara, and Ana Luisa Reis. These three mayors-elect were all former members of the MAS-IPSP passed over by the party’s centralized nomination process (known popularly as the dedazo). Damián Condori, a peasant leader who built an independent party when he was passed as MAS-IPSP candidate for governor in 2015, is facing a tight runoff today in Chuquisaca after winning a plurality in the first round. Santos Quispe, the son of renowned indigenous leader Felip Quispe (“El Mallku”), is challenging in La Paz. And Regis Richter, another candidate sidelined by this year‘s dedazo, is the challenger in Pando. A run-off in Tarija is a more conventional left–right contest in a deeply divided department.
Eva Copa’s advocacy for the MAS under the difficult circumstances of Áñez government made her a national figure, but she ran for mayor highlighting issues of local accountability. Condori and Quispe represent political in-roads for their department‘s rural Indigenous populations, following in the wake of outgoing La Paz governor Felix Patzi. Their rise shows demonstrates an ability to stake out political ground outside of the vertical power structure of the MAS-IPSP. However, the biggest debates in Bolivia about democracy, indigenous autonomy, and ecological sustainability in Bolivia are likely to continue to happen outside of electoral politics for now.
As part of an extended panel on the Corporation on at the American Association of Geographers meeting, I presented the following talk on Concession blocks, spiraling pits, and wily start-ups: Spatialities of Andean extractivism (AAG members only). The talk is a deep dive in the technologies and policies that connect open-pit mining w/ speculative capital, built around Sumitomo Corporation’s San Cristobal mine in Potosí, Bolivia and Bear Creek Mining’s failed Santa Ana silver mine project in Puno, Peru (prior coverage here: 1|2).
A breakdown of the observations on corporate structure is in this Twitter thread. You can watch a video of the full talk here. I’m preparing to submit an article-length version of the investigation soon.
Former interim president Jeanine Áñez was arrested on Saturday, March 13, as part of an investigation into charges of “sedition, terrorism, and conspiracy” related to her sudden assumption of the presidency of Bolivia in November 2019. A judge ruled that Áñez is a flight risk and ordered four month of preventative detention while the investigation proceeds. The case, which began with a formal complaint by ex-legislator Lidia Patty in December, is grounded in the extraordinary way that an opposition leader in the Senate came to be Bolivia’s interim president. Áñez’s arrest came shortly after her defeat in the March 7 election for governor of her home department of Beni.
Inside Bolivia, Áñez’s arrest and the continuing investigations of members of her cabinet, former miltary officials, and opposition politicians have deepened the country’s political polarization. While members of the governing MAS-IPSP party and survivors of the Senkata massacre praised the arrest as a first step towards justice, other human rights groups have raised cautions about the perceived partiality of the country’s justice system, the need for due process, and the need to prioritize a truly independent accounting of abuses during the country’s 2019 political crisis.
On November 12, 2019, Bolivian senator Jeanine Áñez convened a nearly empty chamber in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. Evo Morales had proffered his resignation two days earlier, followed in short order by his vice president, numerous members of the cabinet. The leaders of the legislature—Adriana Salvatierra, president of the senate and Victor Borda, president of the chamber of deputies—also had given up these posts, but not their seats. Outside the government itself, chaos reigned: following a November 8 police mutiny, opponents of Evo Morales set fire to the party’s regional headquarters in Cochabamba, and numerous politicians across the political spectrum had their houses set alight. Where the bulk of this destruction was from the anti-Morales side between the mutiny and Evo’s resignation, his supporters began a concentrated wave of revenge afterwards in El Alto and La Paz after his resignation. Police and soldiers had remobilized in a crackdown and shot dead as many as six protesters and bystanders. Two policemen and a protester were dead from non-shooting incidents in La Paz.
While the heads of the chambers had resigned their leadership posts, the socialist party of Evo Morales, the MAS-IPSP, retained its majority in the legislature. Amid the chaos and the crackdown, these legislators pleaded for a guarantees of their security and freedom should they come to the legislative chamber. These requests were ignored. Meanwhile, a behind-the-scenes group of opposition leaders, among them Jorge Quiroga, debated who could become Bolivia’s next president.
And so Jeanine Áñez convened the legislature, first to proclaim herself president of the senate, and then as president of the senate, to proclaim herself interim president of Bolivia.
Was this legal? The Bolivian Constitution of 2009 only specifies three offices in the line of succession to the presidency: Vice President, President of the Senate, and President of the Chamber of Deputies (Article 169). It also describes presidential resignations as something to approved or denied by the legislature (Article 170). MAS-IPSP deputies could reasonably expect to convene to both review the resignation and to re-elect new a new President of the Senate, who would then assume the presidency on an interim basis. But they were locked out of the process. Without its majority, the legislature may also not have had quorum to meet in official session. Under a prior constitution, a court ruling had placed the vice presidents of the Senate in the line of succession, but it remains unclear whether this ruling still applied after 2009. After Áñez took power, a press statement from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, Bolivia‘s highest ruling court accepted her succession, but this document’s legitimacy and legal force are now debated including by a member of the court itself.
Was this coercive? To the extent that President Morales and people in the line of succession were personally threatened to get them out of office, yes. Susan Rivero, then first vice president of the Chamber of Deputies (and who therefore expected to assume leadership of the chamber), reports feeling threatened with reprisals upon her family. The MAS-IPSP legislative leadership, she recounts, was told by Quiroga’s group, “Bueno, apúrense a hablar con su bancada porque con ustedes o sin ustedes tenemos un plan B. [Well, hurry up and talk with your [partisan legislative] bench, because with or without you we have a Plan B.]” Later that day, Áñez swore herself in without them.
Does this make Áñez criminally liable? The legal case against Áñez pursues uncharted waters for accountability in Bolivia, and the boundary between conspiracy to overthrow Morales and clandestine succession planning after his resignation depends on the degree of coordination and planning before the fact. (This is something I explored earlier about the ouster overall, when less information was available.)
The challenge of legitimacy
Will the current investigation have legitimacy across the political spectrum? All signs point to no. While there is a coherent case around Áñez’s responsibility, it is nowhere near as clear as her command responsibility for human rights abuses—chiefly the Sacaba and Senkata massacres, mass arrests, and torture in prison—during her first month in office, which was the bloodiest time in Bolivia since 2003 Bolivian prosecutors and the IACHR-formed Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) are pursuing separate investigations of these abuses. The latter investigations have promised to impartially examine the actions of all governments (Morales, the military interregnum, and Áñez) and of non-state actors on all sides during the crisis. Amnesty International’s statement on the arrest urged that this group should take the lead for accountability.
Parallel actions by Bolivian prosecutors, and statements by members of the governing party are also subtracting legitimacy from the arrest by putting it in a partisan context. Evo Morales and MAS-IPSP legislators are attempting to hold OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro accountable for the coup, which they blame on the OAS audit of the election. However, on the morning of Morales‘ resignation, the OAS auditors proposed that he should compete in an electoral runoff even as the Bolivian labor movement was urging him to resign. MAS-IPSP legislators have also suggested charges against human rights activist and anti-Morales organizer Waldo Albarracín for using his role as Rector of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés to promote protests.
Amnesty International also points to the Arce government’s blanket amnesty (via Supreme Decree 4461 on February 18, 2021) to all people already under investigation for crimes committed during the crisis. While many of the charges and indictments issued during the Áñez government were politically dubious, not all were, and throwing them out collectively amounted to saying that only those on one side of the conflict will be held accountable, while those on the other side will not.
Finally, a slate of coincident accusations against opposition politicians have surfaced or advanced in the past week. These include proposals to charge Áñez criminally for four acts of policy during her administration, and allegations of financial mismanagement against Iván Arias, her minister of public works who was recently elected mayor of La Paz. (Arias also faces credible accusations of sexual harassment that first appeared in mid-2019.) Bolivian laws prior to and during the Morales administration make it possible to hold officials criminally accountable for acts such as “economic damage to the state.” Whether or not such crimes are a sensible idea, they provide nearly unlimited opportunities to prosecute political opponents. Only a rigorously independent prosecutor’s office and judiciary can manage such cases in a manner that preserves confidence that justice will be impartial. Unfortunately, neither of these offices have a tradition of independence, as was graphically shown by the investigation and jailing of hundreds of MAS officials and party members during the Áñez government. President Luis Arce recognized these flaws and set up a judicial reform commission tasked with restructuring the system, but its work is stalled.
For now, the Arce government will have to prioritize which forms of accountability to pursue, and provide extraordinary and convincing evidence of wrongdoing to both domestic and international audiences on the cases it does move forward. Prosecuting Áñez and other members of her government for massacres and human rights abuses is the clearest path. Setting some legal limits on executing a coup itself looks like more of a reach. Neither will retain international or domestic legitimacy if prosecutors simultaneously target political opponents for their policies or protests.
The playing field for changing American political life is about to shift dramatically.
If your agenda has included both resisting Trump and building a just, sustainable, antiracist, liberated world, you’ve just lived through a dramatic four years where one problem—the president of the United States—probably occupied a lot of your mental space. That space was crammed with a seemingly endless series of moral/political crises, from a sudden travel ban, to the attempted rollback of Obamacare, to racist mass shootings in Pittsburgh and El Paso, to the literal break-up of refugee families before our eyes, to the drastically mishandled COVID pandemic, and in a final burst of sparks both an attempt to grab power despite electoral defeat and a sheaf of last minute executive action, symbolized for me by the leasing of Arctic indigenous land to oil companies on January 6, 2021. Alongside all this has been a dumpster fire of a presidency marked by petty corruption, vindictiveness, foreign entanglements, and the endless, surreal production of belligerent tweets and speech.
Up til now, America has had a 2016 problem. How to manage the consequences of troubling (to say the least) president elected without even a plurality of votes, who showed no signs of seeking broaden that coalition, but instead focused on using the available levers of power to advance corporate power, a narrow-minded religious vision he evidently had little faith in, an authoritarian vision of state that attracted him greatly, and the nativist, racist, and antiqueer agendas that had hidden behind codewords and euphemisms for decades. The tools for dealing with that problem ranged from mass street protest to fights in the courts, but their leading edge was an electoral effort that reclaimed one house of Congress in 2018 (with an extraordinary 8% vote margin) and the White House in 2020 (with a more modest 4.4% vote margin). Despite temporary and quasi-permanent structural barriers to one-person/one-vote democracy—respectively, redistricting and disenfranchisment, and the Senate and Electoral College—this effort succeeded.
But as I said, the problem is about to change. And that change is going to be disorienting for many of us who have nothing but glee over the end of the Trump presidency.
I’m writing here to keep us—those who want more than a “return to normal”—oriented as the political world takes an Inception-like 90-degree turn and the forces of gravity seem to turn against us.
The compass I keep in the back of my mind is this: think about the scale of the problem you are confronting. How deep does it go? How far back in history are its origin points? How wicked in the problem, and what other problems are clustered around the same causes?
It helps that my adult political life began around the time of the Seattle global justice/antiglobalization protetss against the World Trade Organization. Adbusters magazine, one of the creative epicenters of that mobilization, circulated the image shown here. In the center is the kind of error message produced by 20th century Apple Macs when they crashed, with the text “System Error—Type 1945 (progress).” The end of World War II also marked the foundation of the global economy, through the World Trade Organization (then, the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It was the handoff point from a war-time, state-organized economy to the era in which mass consumerism would accompany continuing militarism. And it was the debut of a United States-led global order incorporating the majority of countries into sometimes colonial and sometimes dictatorial, but self-branded “free” world.
In Seattle, we were confronting a process that was “writing the constitution for a single global economy,” as WTO head Renato Ruggiero put it, written behind close doors in the interest of corporate power. We were also confronting a process endorsed by both political parties. It was the culmination of a neoliberal vision of globalization, championed as much by Clinton’s New Democrats as by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. (The Democratic party assumed that Seattle, a city then much more identified with Boeing than big tech, would be the perfect showplace for the debut of globalization.) When we surrounded the meetings with nonviolent blockades, a Democratic president, governor, and mayor collaborated in calling in the National Guard, flooding the streets with tear gas, and arresting six hundred demonstrators.
Flash forward three tumultuous years to the authorization of the War on Iraq. Fifty-eight percent of Democratic Senators and 39% of Democratic Representatives joined nearly all Republicans in backing the new war. The global antiwar coalition lacked a partisan home in the United States, but it built on the global justice movement’s transnational ties and experience in taking the streets. The media baptized global public opinion “a second superpower” that was challenging the unilateral US government. Within the United States, though, we never amassed the votes to block the war, but just as in Seattle, our protests gave other countries the space to step away from or denounce the war. Later, Barack Obama made opposition to the Iraq War a core part of his appeal in 2008.
The point is, whether confronting war or globalization, we knew we started from a point of institutional weakness within representative government, but potentially widespread support in the country at large. Protest was our natural arena since congressional votes and court cases would often run against us.
The last four years have been different. I could feel this when people protesting the Muslim travel ban flooded airports, along with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. Already in the first week of the Trump presidency, a range of institutional actors were shifting their stances around protest: local officials extended transit hours for people protesting at the airport, technology executives from Google’s Sergey Brin on down were showing up to back the protests, state attorneys general were filing for court injunctions against the ban. An exceptional wave of donations and subscriptions was rising to support advocacy organizations like the ACLU and journalistic outlets like the New York Times.
2017 and 2018 proved to be an experiment in what would happen when a radical faction controls the executive and legislative branch of the US government, but faces opposition from many other institutions, notably bastions of professionals. Journalism, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley were all filled with critical voices. Certain Federal courts issued injunctions limiting executive power. #MeToo emerged, a movement with extraordinarily broad participation and a target on the kinds of harrassment and abuse practiced by the president, but also elite men of all parties and sectors. Speeches by Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes, the not-necessarily-political awards ceremony of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, frontally challenged the president. (These signs reassured me about the parallels to fascist authoritarianism in Europe: Hitler and Mussolini had succeeded in part because of the total moral collapse of major institutions. Ours held up by comparison.)
The broad alliances of the past few years have now done their work, pushing Donald Trump kicking and screaming to the edge of the political stage and to a now-inevitable exit from the White House. But they won’t last into the next round of struggles. Because we will no longer be confronting just 2016 problems. Some of the people we voted for will reinforce the structures of power we aim to dismantle. Some people who joined us in the streets since January 2017 will drift away now that they feel they have an ally in the White House. And some of those who fought with us against Trump will now see our visions as the real problem.
The Black Lives Matter protesters of 2020, perhaps our country’s most widespread protest mobilization, knew this already. As Trump has never stopped reminding us, these protests usually take place in “Democrat cities.” They face off with a bipartisan consensus around mass incarceration and militarizing the police—System Error Type 1969 (New Jim Crow)—and require uprooting the systemic racism built into our country the beginning. Call it System Error Type 1619. Active movements call into question settler colonialism (Type 1492). As disappointingBidenappointments come in, we will be reminded of our other long-term struggles against unwarranted corporate power, wealth inequality, mindless consumerism and its destruction of the planet. All of these will require acting beyond political parties and mainstream institutions, as well as leveraging them where we can.
One more thing: it’s not the case that the older a systemic problem is, the harder it is to fight. We’ve lived through extraordinary changes to order of gender, sex, and sexuality—systems who symbolic origins are lost to time and unidentifiable with a familiar date—in the past fifty and the past fifteen years. Fights that were once only imaginable in the streets and in our own families became fights in the courts and eventually were embraced by the lighting of the White House. Successful movements transform fundamental shifts into collective common sense. Let’s keep our eyes on horizon as the world shifts around us.
On October 18, 2020, Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People (MAS-IPSP) party roared back into a majority at the ballot box, winning a solid 55.11% of the vote and nearly doubling its nearest rival, Carlos Mesa’s Citizen Community (CC)’s 28.83%. The presidential ticket of Luis Arce Catacora and David Choquehuanca easily surpassed the simple-majority threshold for avoiding a runoff vote, and had an ample 26.28% margin of victory. Their victory came just 364 days after the disappointing performance of Evo Morales, who garnered 47.08% with a 10.57% margin over Mesa. It is all the more impressive since Arce and Choquehuanca campaigned without the benefits of incumbency and under the cloud of political persecution imposed by the temporary government of far-right interim president Jeanine Áñez.
This post takes a quantitative look at which parties gained and lost votes between these two elections and how the MAS-IPSP majority has evolved in size and geography since 2005. In the past year, the most consequential shift was missed by the headlines: the collapse in support for third-party candidate Chi Hyun Chung. I will also consider what these shifts reveal about Evo Morales’ second-round chances in 2019 (much better than expected), and Carlos Mesa’s fateful decision not to negotiate a prompt second round. A year ago, I looked at where and how Evo Morales lost his majority in 2016 and 2019; in the final section, I extend that analysis and see where Arce and Choquehuanca gained back supporters.
The North American Congress on Latin America and New York University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies hosted me on a panel on the 2020 Bolivian elections and the challenges that await the MAS-IPSP government, on Tuesday, November 17. The video is online here.
Bolivia’s Electoral Victory: What Challenges Lie Ahead For MAS?