Bolivia enters nightmare scenario with Sacaba massacre, impunity decree, threatened detentions of MAS-IPSP leadership

Given the fast pace of events in Bolivia, my most responsive and up-tod-date commentary is available on Twitter, where I tweet as @CarwilBJ. However, it’s time for a brief summary of the disastrous, unfolding scenario.

President Jeanine Añez, a right-wing senator took power in a parliamentary maneuver late on Tuesday, November 12. A political unknown whose party Bolivia Dice No had received just 4% of the vote on October 20, Añez had a very limited mandate, both from the three-week mass movement that unseated Evo Morales and under the Bolivian constitution: restore public trust in the electoral system and convene elections within 90 days. Instead, Añez has presided over a rapid and deadly slide towards authoritarian rule that echoes the worst moments of early 2000s uprisings, 1988–2005 drug war, and the mass detentions that followed military coups in 1980 and 1981.

Three unmistakable signs of this disastrous turn have come this weekend:

The Sacaba Massacre: The mass shooting of over 100 protesters at Huayllani Bridge, nine of whom were killed, in Sacaba (Cochabamba Department) on Friday. This shooting came about when military troops armed with guns replaced police who were keeping a coca growers’ march from entering the town on the east side of the Cochabamba metropolis. The According to reporters on the scene, police teargassing touched off a two-hour confrontation. Security forces have claimed that some in the crowd had guns and fired them, showing several bullet holes in police windows. Journalists estimate that “nearly ten” police were evacuated from the scene for injuries; evidently, none of them have bullet wounds. The police have recovered a single shotgun and five bullets. Meanwhile their use of force was overwhelming, caused massive injuries, and ended nine civilian lives. Opinión offers the most complete initial narrative of the day (es).

Autopsies have confirmed that all nine people killed died from gunshot wounds; ballistic analysis was not yet complete as of Saturday. The dead in Sacaba are:

Armando Carballo Escobar, de 25 años, falleció por un trauma torácico penetrante por Proyectil de Arma de Fuego (PAF).

Plácido Rojas Delgadillo, de 18 años, murió por shock hipovolémico, trauma hepático y trauma torácico abdominal penetrante por PAF.

Omar Calle Siles, de 26 años, falleció por choque hipovolémico por hemorragia interna, laceración cardiaca por traumatismo y PAF. 

Lucas Sánchez Valencia, de 43 años, falleció laceración encefálica y traumatismo cráneo facial por PAF.

Emilio Colque, de 21 años, murió por choque hemorrágico, laceración de órganos vitales y trauma torácico por PAF.

Juan López Apaza, de 34 años, falleció por shock hemorrágico, laceración aortica y trauma torácico penetrante por PAF. 

César Sipe Mérida, de 18 años, murió por choque hipovolémico y traumatismo abdominal por PAF.

Marco Vargas Martínez, se desconoce su edad, falleció por lesión de centros nerviosos superiores, laceración de masa encefálica y trauma cráneo encefálico por PAF.

Roberto Sejas Escobar, de 28 años, murió por laceración de masa encefálica y traumatismo cráneo encefálico por PAF.

https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/cochabamba/autopsias-confirman-personas-murieron-armas-fuego/20191116211426737221.html

With at least 19 deaths, November has now become the deadliest month in Bolivian political conflict since October 2003, the time of the Gas War under Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Deaths in the current crisis initially occurred among civilians, but in recent days a clear pattern of military gunfire killing civilians has become the predominant cause of death.

Supreme Decree exempts military from prosecution: Saturday afternoon, Añez signed Supreme Decree 4078. Among other provisions, it exempts the military from criminal prosecution for actions carried out during the current efforts to “restore order” in the country:

Personnel of the Armed Forces who participate in the operations to restore internal order and public stability will be exempted from criminal responsibility when, acting in fulfillment of their functions, they act in legitimate defense or out of necessity.

El personal de las Fuerzas Armadas, que participe en los operativos para el restablecimiento del orden interno y estabilidad pública estará exento de responsabilidad penal cuando en cumplimiento de sus funciones, actúen en legítima defensa o estado de necesidad

https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/pais/20191116/decreto-exime-ffaa-responsabilidad-penal-caso-legitima-defensa-estado

While the decree technically reiterates the validity of exisitng guidelinse on the use of force, this exemption effectively eliminates any penalties for systematic human rights abuses, up to and including murder. Passing it the day after the Sacaba massacre only underscores how shameless and violent the Añez government is.

Crackdown announced on MAS-IPSP leadership: Today, Sunday November 17, Minister of Government Arturo Murillo announced he will detain MAS-IPSP legislators for “sedition” and “subversion” (effectively, for supporting anti-government protests), starting this week. The MAS-IPSP legislative delegation, who still hold a majority in both house (and won a continuing majority in the October elections) had emerged as a center of moderation and calm this week. On Thursday, November 14, they called for “mobilized sectors of social movements to allow us to achieve peace” and asked “equally, of the Armed Forces and the police: no bullets, please.” The Sacaba massacre was a grim response.

Over the weekend, the same legislators issued a call for the full Senate and Chamber of Deputies to hold sessions on Tuesday (Noveber 19) to convene new elections. Murillo’s new crackdown threatens to undermine this call and/or unseat the MAS-IPSP from its majority. The Minister, who supervises the security forces and prosecutors, said Sunday:

“There are senators and deputies (male and female), not all of them, just some; I will begin to publish their names who are fomenting subversion. Starting Monday, I already have the list which the leaders of the various zones themselves are passing to me. [We] will begin to detain them with prosecutorial orders.”

“Hay senadores y senadoras, diputados y diputadas, no todos, unos cuantos, que voy a empezar a publicar sus nombres, que están haciendo subversión. A partir de lunes voy a ordenar, ya tengo listas que los mismos dirigentes de varias zonas me están pasando, los van a empezar a detener con órdenes fiscales”

https://www.europapress.es/internacional/noticia-nuevo-gobierno-boliviano-detendra-diputados-mas-responsables-subversion-sedicion-20191117194230.html

At the beginning of the week, I argued that when “the military signaled limits to further state repression, stayed out of the presidential chair, and did not substitute its choice of leaders for one determined at the ballot box,” their political interventions in Bolivia have not been remembered as coups d’ètat. We have crossed those lines.

This is a coup.

Evo Morales on the brink as opposition refuses dialogue and police mutiny goes national

The balance of power in Bolivia is rapidly shifting away from President Evo Morales as the police mutiny that began last night in Cochabamba has now spread to all nine departments of the country, and most critically to police barracks in La Paz, the seat of government and site of the Presidential Palace. From the palace, President Morales, flanked by Vice President Álvaro García Linera and Foreign Minister Diego Pary put forward a mid-day call for dialogue among the four political parties that will hold seats in the legislature following the hotly disputed October 20 elections.

Sisters and brothers, we have the historic responsibility to defend our democracy and its social policies. I ask our patriotic professionals, workers of the countryside and of the city, to reject in a peaceful manner this coup attempt that is an attack on the constitutional order.

To preserve the peace in our beloved Bolivia, I make an urgent call for a table of dialogue with the representatives of those political parties that won legislative assembly seats in the elections. I call upon Pope Francis, and the various churches and international organizations to accompany us in the dialogue.

The three opposition party leaders—second-place presidential candidate Carlos Mesa Gisbert (Comunidad Ciudadana), Chi Hyun Chung, and Oscar Ortiz—have all rapidly refused the invitation. This is the clearest sign that maximalist demand, for Evo Morales to resign unconditionally, has now become a general demand across the opposition movement.

But it is not the only sign. Moves by police, MAS-IPSP politicians, and the public all show that the ground is shifting against Evo Morales on the Bolivian political scene.

The High Command of the Armed forces has declared:

“The Armed Forces, in the framework of democracy and law, will guarantee the union among compatriots, and therefore we ratify that we will never put ourselves in confrontation with the people, to whom we owe and for whom we will always ensure peace, coexistence among our brothers and sisters, and the development of our homeland.”

“Las Fuerzas Armadas, enmarcadas en la democracia y las leyes, garantizaremos la unión entre compatriotas, por lo que ratificamos que nunca nos enfrentaremos con el pueblo, a quien nos debemos y siempre velaremos por la paz, convivencia entre hermanos y el desarrollo de nuestra patria”

Montero, Baldwin. “FFAA Se Pronuncian Sobre La Crisis y Anuncian Que Nunca Se Enfrentarán Con El Pueblo.” La Razón, November 9, 2019. http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/animal_electoral/bolivia-ffaa-kaliman-posicion-pueblo-crisis_0_3254674531.html.

Several prominent MAS-IPSP politicians have resigned rather than stand against their increasingly protesting populations, notably the governor of Potosí and the mayors of Potosí and Sucre.

Once the police mutiny spread to La Paz, police withdrew from the Plaza Murillo and opposition protesters arrived on the doorstep of the Presidential Palace. Over seven hundred Potosino protesters have arrived in La Paz and 2,500 more are expected on Sunday.

National police mutiny marks a critical point in Bolivian electoral crisis

The Bolivian political crisis set off by credible (if unconfirmed) allegations of fraud in the October 20 presidential elections took two dramatic turns this week. On Wednesday, a major escalation in clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators in downtown Cochabamba and near Huayculi in Cochabamba caused scores of serious injuries and the death of a twenty-year old student, Limbert Guzmán, who had been protesting against electoral fraud. The anti-government side engaged in less-lethal outrages upon government-aligned actors: subjecting the MAS-IPSP-affiliated Mayor of Vinto to march to the site of the clashes and pelting her with red paint, and last night burning out the Cochabamba offices of the Chapare coca grower’s union and MAS-IPSP political party.

But the pivotal event of yesterday is the decision of members of the national police to declare themselves in mutiny in solidarity with the electoral fraud protests. (Police mutinies are a periodic occurrence in Bolivia, and the term does not connote a necessarily violent uprising, but rather a collective refusal to follow orders.) The mutiny began at Cochabamba’s Police Operations Tactical Unit (Wikipedia), a specialized anti-riot force, and quickly spread to two other units in the city, and to police units and/or commanders in five other cities since then. Mutinied police officers have occupied their own barracks, raised Bolivian flags and sometimes anti-fraud banners, and effectively removed themselves as an option for President Evo Morales to control mushrooming protests. The ongoing protest mobilization has gathered hundreds or thousands of protesters around police barracks supporting existing mutinies and encouraging further ones. Meanwhile, the Morales government has described the police mutiny as the unmistakable sign of a coup d’état.

Police mutinies in their bottom-up form have accompanied Bolivian protest before. They can force governments to negotiate and avoid bloodshed. Or, in the worst case (Feb 2003), there can be bloodshed among state security forces. The next critical question is the stance of the military. Early signs are neither the military leadership nor Minister of Government appear to want the police and military to be deployed against one another.

Bolivia has had a lot of off-schedule changes of power, but since 1982 the have always been ratified by a vote at the ballot box. This was true in mid-1985, when general strikes and business lockouts forced Hernán Siles Zuazo to call early elections; in October 2003, when the Gas War uprising, supported by a series of hunger strikes led Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign; in June 2005 when further protests pressed Carlos Mesa to resign, and two legislators to forego their right to presidential succession, prompting December 2005 elections; and during the 2008 political crisis, when dueling protest mobilizations were ultimately resolved in favor of the Morales–grassroots left coalition, with the outcome ratified by a recall referendum and a constitutional referendum. In April 2000, a police strike influenced the government decision to capitulate to the Water War protests in Cochabamba and de-escalate its repression of rural protests in the Altiplano. At the final moments, the military high command pressed for a constitutional exit to the crises in 2003 and 2005.

In all of these cases, the military signaled limits to further state repression, stayed out of the presidential chair, and did not substitute its choice of leaders for one determined at the ballot box. Arguably, this is why none of these events are remembered as coups d’ètat. In the current context, doing so will require holding some kind of vote under terms that are acceptable to a broad swath of the Bolivian public and that acknowledges the rights of both Morales and Mesa voters. If and only if the police, military, Morales government and electoral opposition can agree to such an exit, democracy can be preserved.

Santa Cruz cabildo: Bolivian fires prompt right-leaning region to mobilize “in defense of the land”

On Friday, October 4, the Santa Civic Committee (Comité pro Santa Cruz) convened what will almost certainly prove to be the largest political gathering in Bolivia this year. Estimates of the crowd, while unverified, hover around one million people, including large numbers bused in from outside the city. Sixteen days before the 2019 presidential election, this “Cabildo for democracy and the land” follows in the footsteps of regional cabildos in 2004 and 2008, at a time when the department of Santa Cruz was the leading center of opposition to the grassroots left movement in the country and to indigenous president Evo Morales.

Now fifteen years after the first major cabildo put proposals for autonomy and federalism (that is, the devolution of national powers to the level of Bolivia’s nine departments; the analogue of states in the USA), the same movement has reconvened and added new demands to platform. First, the Santa Cruz movement remains a pole of opposition to Evo Morales, but it now frames that opposition in terms of defending the democratic vote cast in the February 21, 2016 referendum, when 51.3% of voters denied Morales the right to run for a fourth presidential term. The Cruceño movement views the judicial and electoral decisions to allow Morales to nevertheless participate in the October 20, 2019, election as illegitimate.

But the cabildo, and the election, have been reshaped by the ecological crisis of the Bolivian fires this year. While every year sees deliberate burning of future agricultual lands in Bolivia, the fires this year spread into a regional disaster of unusual (if not unprecedented) proportions. Over the past ten weeks (and these figures are likely underestimates since they run through September 25), fires have consumed over 5.3 million hectares of Bolivia’s land, and some 3.9 million hectares in Santa Cruz alone. This is over 10% of the department. Nearly all of the 2 million hectares of forest that burned was inside the department, including at least one sixth of the Chiquitano dry forest (1.4/8.6M ha) has burned in the last two months. Cruceños have watched as news of the disaster came in daily, including devastating losses in twelve natural protected areas and the deaths of five people engaged in fighting the fires.

On one hand, the political fallout has been predictable: existing regional grievances that divide Santa Cruz from the federal government have been reactivated. These fall into there areas: Cruceños (at least as led by the free-market-oriented, agribusiness-connected elites) perceive themselves as culturally and politically distinct from the more Andean, indigenous, and socialist central government. Their government and administrative officials have long chafed at the centralization of the Bolivian state. And, the tensions around racial identity spark hottest around the steady migration of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking highlanders to both urban and rural Santa Cruz. Which is to say that economics, administration, and race are all part of the conflict.

Now add the fires to the mix.

Read More »

CBP suspends “zero tolerance,” Sessions defends it, Military builds prisons for families

In the wake of Donal Trump’s executive order (text) that promised to replace family separation with joint detention of undocumented migrant families, the US government’s actions have been fractured. Over two thousand children remain separated from their parents. As I noted on the day it was issued, the Executive Order codifies the “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all arriving adults as criminals for crossing the border.

However, unexpectedly, Customs and Border Protection (part of the Department of Homeland Security) has retreated from zero tolerance and stopped prosecuting arriving families through criminal courts, for now. CBP’s new approach was announced informally on June 21 and formally on June 25. In both announcements, the agency said its reasons are logistical, though the mass public pressure and media embarrassment associated with separating families are obvious major factors. CBP’s head reaffirmed yesterday that he would like to imprison families if he only had the room:

Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said his agency and the Justice Department should agree on a policy “where adults who bring their kids across the border — who violate our laws and risk their lives at the border — can be prosecuted without an extended separation from their children.”

Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have enough detention space for the surge of families crossing the border, many families will be quickly released, with a promise to return for a court hearing. Mr. McAleenan said that the agency would continue to refer single adults for prosecution for illegally crossing the border, and that border agents would also separate children from adults if the child is in danger or if the adult has a criminal record.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claims that the Department of Justice is holding fast to its zero-tolerance policy, under which it instructed prosecutors on April 6, 2018 (memo|2017 memo authorizing aggressive prosecution), to prosecute all adults referred to them for the crime of unlawful entry. Dogged by protests in Reno, Nevada, Sessions insisted that

The president has made this clear. We are going to continue to prosecute those adults who enter here illegally. We are going to do everything in our power, however, to avoid separating families. All federal agencies are working hard to accomplish this goal.

Squaring this circle requires more jails for families. On Monday, June 25, Defense Secretary Mattis announced that Fort Bliss (near El Paso, Texas) and Goodfellow Air Force Base have been selected as the first detention facilities on military bases.

Migrant families who were taken into custody will be housed at Fort Bliss, an Army base outside El Paso, according to Bowman. Unaccompanied migrant children will be housed at Goodfellow Air Force Base, near San Angelo in central Texas.

As the Department of Defense constructs family detention facilities, they will be solving CBP’s “logistical problem.” Accepting the agencies at their word, we should expect families housed at Fort Bliss to be put through zero-tolerance prosecutions.

Why Trump’s Executive Order doesn’t solve the family separation crisis

Yesterday afternoon, June 20, President Trump publicly retreated from the family separation policy (Wikipedia article) that has torn at least 2,342 children from their families. A close reading of the Executive Order he signed, however, reveals that instead of retreating, Trump codified Jeff Sessions’ zero-tolerance policy and proposed an expanding system of indefinite family detention. Further reporting revealed that the Administration is not yet prepared to re-unite divide families. Practical and legal constraints may render the promises of the Executive Order worthless, or (and this is the only speculative part of this post) prompt renewed family separations within days or weeks.

A close read of the Executive Order

This is a slightly amplified version of a post that went viral on Facebook yesterday. While I am not an immigration lawyer, I am a trained policy analyst (M.P.P., University of Chicago, 1998) familiar with Executive Orders and recent immigration policy. My read here is a direct analysis of what the White House proposed, rather than an assessment of what it can legally or practically implement.

I’ve just read the Trump Executive Order. It’s not a solution, and it makes some things worse.

Here’s what the Executive Order actually does (numbered by section) …

1. Codifies Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” directive until new immigration legislation is passed. Prior to the Trump/Sessions crackdown, the US government only criminally prosecuted about 21% of unlawful entrants, concentrating on return offenders and smugglers and exempting families with children. “This Administration will initiate proceedings to enforce this and other criminal provisions of the INA until and unless Congress directs otherwise.”

2. Limits the definition of family to parent-child pairs. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. are excluded. “Alien family” means…

3a. Puts families under Homeland Security custody during criminal, immigration cases. Previously, children and detained families had to be held in facilities contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services. [Correction 6/27: Detained families are held by DHS in three facilities: the privately operated Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas Family Residential Center in Texas, and the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania. These facilities must be state-licensed as child-care facilities under rulings pursuant to the Reno v. Flores litigation.] The Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary), shall, to the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, maintain custody of alien families 

3b.Authorizes immigration authorities to separate parents from children if joint detention “would pose a risk to the child’s welfare.” This phrase seems intended to separate abusers from their kids, but no procedure is elaborated.

3c. Authorizes the military to build new prisons for migrant families. The wording actually gives the Homeland Security Secretary, currently Kirstjen Nielsen, to choose any military facility she wishes.  The Secretary of Defense shall take all legally available measures to provide to the Secretary [of Homeland Security], upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families, and shall construct such facilities if necessary and consistent with law. 

3d. Allows all Federal departments to offer their buildings as prisons. Heads of executive departments and agencies shall, to the extent consistent with law, make available to the Secretary, for the housing and care of alien families pending court proceedings for improper entry, any facilities that are appropriate for such purposes. 

3e. Authorizes the DOJ to try to wriggle out of the Flores Agreement. This phrasing is the most foreboding since it would seek legal authorization for DHS (not Health and Human Services) to detain families throughout their often-lengthy criminal, deportation, and asylum proceedings. The Attorney General shall promptly file a request with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to modify the Settlement Agreement in Flores v. Sessions… to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.

4. Orders parents to be prosecuted first in immigration courts, presumably to deport them fastest. This phrase, intended to expedite prosecution and removal, puts families to the head of a line that also includes people being deported for dangerous criminal offenses, the exact opposite of the policy pursued by the Obama administration.

Early signs the crisis isn’t over

  • Wednesday afternoon, Kenneth Wolfe, a spokeman for  the Administration for Children and Families told the press, “There will not be a grandfathering of existing cases.” And also “For the minors currently in the unaccompanied alien children program, the sponsorship process will proceed as usual.”
  • Seemingly embarrassed by these admissions, the Department of Health and Human Services walked them back later on Wednesday, saying instead: “It is still very early and we are awaiting further guidance on the matter. … Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of UACs, and the administration is working towards that for those UACs currently in HHS custody.”
  • Once guidance comes, there is the problem of a system not built to keep families connected at all. Politico reports that “The biggest problem, as far as I can tell, is where the kids’ records don’t have information on the parents,” said one Homeland Security Department official. “I don’t know how they’re going to go about fixing that.”
  • Should families be reunited, they might not have a place to go. The Executive Order instructs the Department of Homeland Security (ICE and CBP) to incarcerate families together. At the moment, ICE has very limited detention space for families. As the Washington Post reports, “ICE operates two large family detention centers in Texas and a smaller facility in Pennsylvania, with a combined capacity for about 3,000 beds. As of June 9, the three facilities had nearly 2,600 of those beds occupied.” Reuniting families immediately would require some five thousand separated family members into 400 beds.

Looming obstacles mean family separation will likely resume, and soon

Again, this is the only speculative part of this post.

  • Reports indicate that ICE has been separating 65 children per day. As noted above, ICE family detention capacity is low (perhaps as few as 400 empty beds), even if already separated families remain separate. Incarcerating families will require putting around 130 people into these facilities every day, or rapidly building more. Either the government will rapidly stop detaining families together, or they will start putting them into makeshift facilities recently built for immigrant children, like the tent camp in Tornillo.
  • Legal constraints, primarily the Flores Settlement, limit DHS custody of children to 72 hours and HHS custody to 20 days. If enforced, these would require either separating or releasing families at the end of these windows.
  • There will be lawsuits over the new family detention policy, and some of it seems manifestly against existing law or legal orders. Politico reports: “The president doesn’t get any brownie points for moving from a policy of locking up families and kids separately to locking them up together,” said Karen Tumlin of the National Immigrant Law Center. “I will not hesitate to use every legal tool available to challenge these policies in court….May a thousand litigation flowers bloom.”

On the other hand…

We did get some genuinely good news today (Thursday) with this announcement from Customs and Border Patrol, reported by the Washington Post:

The U.S. Border Patrol will no longer refer migrant parents who cross into the United States illegally with children to federal courthouses to face criminal charges, a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told The Washington Post on Thursday.

A Justice Department spokesperson denied changes to the zero tolerance policy and said prosecutions would continue.

Because ICE lacks the detention capacity to increase the number of families it holds in detention, the official acknowledged that many migrant parents and children will likely be released from custody while they await court hearings.

Top CBP officials did not know what the executive order would ask them to do until its release Wednesday, the official said. The decision to cease prosecutions of parents with children was made by the Department of Homeland Security for logistical purposes because the official said it would not be “feasible” to bring children to federal courtrooms while their parents go before a judge.

This is a logistical decision; there really is nowhere to put families with children. So, it may be reversed. But it is the first sign that CBP might not implement the mass detention of families, for now.

Mass prosecutions of adults without children continue. So the zero tolerance policy has not be reversed.

Further reading

I’m not just a voice in the wilderness saying these things. You can read reporting and commentary here…

No, TIPNIS solidarity isn’t a “conveyor belt” for US-backed regime change

An article published Monday in CounterPunch has resurfaced a narrative that frames Bolivian indigenous and environmentalist movements (particularly the campaign in defense of TIPNIS) as a stalking horse for United States-backed efforts to remove and replace the Evo Morales government. The accusation is false, although like many conspiratorial narratives it weaves together facts, half-truths, inventions, and genuine moral feelings into a plausible narrative. Since the particular narrative involves a solidarity letter that I largely drafted, and it keeps cropping up even after six years, I will address it here.

The allegation that opposition to the Evo Morales government is coordinated by the United States (or the domestic right-wing opposition) is rooted in a real history. US government opposition is real and well-known. Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) and Morales’ Chapare cocalero base were principal targets of a US-backed drug war, which they resisted. When the MAS-IPSP emerged as a political force, the United States government acted to resist its rise, supported his opponent in the 2005 presidential election, and encouraged establishment political forces when they regrouped in a separatist movement governing between four and six of Bolivia’s nine departments. That campaign fell apart in the September 2008 political crisis. So, wariness of the US government as a nexus of opposition is understandable.

However, the Bolivian government has indiscriminately accused large mass mobilizations from below and from the left of being right-wing- or US-controlled fronts. In 2010 and 2011 alone, the government alleged that the CIDOB indigenous confederation, the Potosí regional strike (in a region that voted over 70% for the MAS-IPSP), and the general strike by the Bolivian Workers Central (the national trade union confederation) were all covert attempts at a coup and fronts for anti-Evo conspiracies. A Google search for “Evo Morales” “ve conspiración” derecha reveals more recent examples of allegedly conspiring groups: cooperative miners, Achacachi peasants, opponents of the election procedures for the judiciary, and former Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena.

Given the president’s life story, I empathize with his tendency to see a conspiracy behind every opponent. But empathy is not validation.

Here’s why these charges are baseless in this case:

The lowland indigenous movement was not, and is not engaged in regime change, nor has it ever posed an existential threat to the Morales government. This should go without saying, but a movement whose force is primarily moral self-sacrifice, demonstrated through arduous cross-country marches, hunger strikes, and vigils is not going to expel Morales from power. The solidarity efforts that paralyzed several regions of the country with general strikes in late September and early October 2011 were aimed at winning a protection law for TIPNIS, legislation that required votes from MAS-IPSP representatives. There’s no regime change here at all.

The notion of outside control over a highly arduous form of protest like the CIDOB/CONAMAQ marches has always been absurd. The risks and effort involved cannot be bought, certainly not by the kind of organizational training initiatives that USAID provided to CIDOB well before the march. The decision to begin the march, and to continue with the march in the face of tear gas and mass arrest, was made by these movements themselves.

The United States government, alleged by this narrative to be coordinating opposition to the road, has never opposed the TIPNIS highway, nor has it coordinated any significant press push around the issue.

The international solidarity campaign for TIPNIS was built around movement-to-movement contacts between activists outside Bolivia and inside Bolivia, drawing on a long tradition of solidarity with both the anti-imperial vision of grassroots protest in Bolivia and global efforts for environmental sustainability and indigenous rights. The September 2011 letter spoke directly from that position:

As supporters of justice, indigenous rights, and environmental sustainability on a global scale, we have closely watched events in Bolivia since the turn of the century. We have observed and supported Bolivian social movements’ challenges to neoliberal economic policies and to the privatization of water and other natural resources. We value the proactive diplomacy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia in
supporting the rights of indigenous peoples, meaningful and effective responses to climate change, recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and formal acknowledgement by the State of the rights of ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.
We have also watched with great interest and respect as Bolivians sought to incorporate these principles into their Constitution of 2009 and their national laws, including the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth. We are pleased that Bolivia has proactively asserted the place of international civil society in the global debate on climate change, particularly in Copenhagen and by hosting the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in April 2010 and we look forward to participating in the 2nd Summit next spring. However, the country’s pioneering work on all these issues also comes with a great responsibility. Bolivia’s continued ability to press forward this vital agenda will
be affected by its consistency and moral credibility on matters of human rights and environmental protection.

Solidarity campaigns with TIPNIS have in all ways been much stronger and larger within Bolivia than outside of it. The letter’s 59 foreign signatories and two Bolivian signatories reflect nothing more than that it was an international solidarity letter. At the same time as we were finding signers for the letter, street protests occurred in eight of nine departmental capitals, a 24-hour general strike of the COB labor union confederation was held in solidarity, and department-wide strike was held in Beni. The Beni Civic Committee coordinated a general strike and coordinated road blockades in the capital Trinidad, Santa Rosa, San Borja, Riberalta, and Rurrenabaque. The Beni strike extended through a third day, with the participation of unions of teachers, bank workers, shopkeepers, and health workers. On that third day, September 28, the Bolivian Worker’s Central called for a general strike, which affected nearly all major cities and in the tradition of “mobilized strikes” generated large afternoon rallies. Attendance was estimated at over 10,000 in La Paz and in the town of Riberalta, Beni. In Cochabamba, teachers, university students, and municipal workers blockaded major avenues while the public transport system observed a general closure. When the march finally reached La Paz in mid-October, tens of thousands of Paceños lined the route or joined in, while the capital city’s Mayor gave the marchers a key to the city.

Stansfield Smith writes in Counterpunch that “all international issues can only be understood in the context of the role and the actions of the US Empire,” but what he effectively means is that all domestic issues in Bolivia are international issues. And, in his view, they can only be understood as struggles between an “anti-imperial” government and critics who are presumed to be tools of imperialism. We have seen that the government freely makes such accusations, often against former and future allies, without evidence. In the case of Bolivian lowland indigenous movement and critical domestic NGOs, accusations of conspiring with foreign powers have become a mechanism of control. Pretending that we are resisting imperialism by ignoring grassroots social movements does a disservice to the real work of solidarity.

Feature photo by @MiriamJemio