From Seattle to Bolivia: My Journey from Protest Participant to Ethnographer of Revolution

Twenty years ago today, I joined a massive direct action protest to stop the World Trade Organization from making neoliberal economic policy into a virtual treaty for most of humanity. In time, my involvement there drew me to the movements in Bolivia that challenged the same policies, and to a decade of work documenting their capacity to overthrow governments in South America. Here’s a bit of how I followed that path… The following is excerpted (with some small revisions) from my forthcoming book The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia. Available in spring 2020 from University of Arizona Press.

You can get updates on the launch of The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia, and a monthly digest of writing and photography on Bolivia, social movements, indigenous rights, protest tactics, and revolution from Carwil Bjork-James. Sign-up here.

I first encountered Bolivia’s remarkable political upheaval as part of the movement against corporate globalization. The nongovernmental organization that had just hired me, Project Underground, was one of dozens of international solidarity groups weaving bonds among community leaders from the global South, American union workers, environmental activists, and direct-action protesters, in preparation for the Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. My first day on the job, I boarded a bus in Oakland, California, to bring about eighty environmental rights activists directly to the protest against the WTO.

Just before 7:00 a.m. on November 30, 1999, the N30 Global Day of Action, about two dozen of us formed three circles where Pike Street and Boren Avenue cross. In each circle, we linked arms through long tubular “lockboxes.” Sliding our arms into the tubes, and clipping our wrists to a concealed pin, we made circle a unit, breakable only at the risk of serious harm to the limbs concealed within. I got to know my coworkers while helping to occupy this intersection and thereby block the delegates from reaching the meeting. We shared the crossing with dozens of other protesters ready to link arms at a moment’s notice. Any delegates looking for a way into the Ministerial Meeting would have to push their way through us or another group of protesters ringing the Seattle Convention Center. By nightfall the first day of talks had been canceled, and Seattle’s mayor had declared a state of emergency. Surrounded by this display of North American resistance, long-skeptical delegates from the global South saw that U.S. and European negotiators lacked the support of their own people. Many African, Latin American, and Asian delegations then emerged as critics of the WTO’s plans for the seamless flow of capital and commodities, and the talks collapsed. The Direct Action Network, the coordinating body that orchestrated the blockades, mushroomed into a movement of tens of thousands of activists eager to converge upon summits of the powerful, including the World Petroleum Congress, Democratic and Republican political conventions, and the World Economic Forum. Seemingly overnight, challenges to the power and global reach of corporate capitalism became front-page news.

The collapse of the Ministerial Meeting led to cancellation of the Millennium Round of free-trade negotiations just as Bolivians were facing the real effects of corporate-designed trade and investment policies. The government had been aggressively seeking foreign buyers for public enterprises and utilities since 1993 and had found one for the municipal water company of Cochabamba in September 1999. The privatized company’s first water bills—some of them double or triple the previous rate—came out on December 1, 1999. Protests in downtown Cochabamba on that day coincided with the arrest of more than five hundred protesters—including me—in Seattle. By April three waves of mass protests had rocked Cochabamba and thrown out the foreign owners of Aguas del Tunari, restoring public ownership of the city’s water utility.

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Division in El Alto follows militant anti-coup protests

Following the forced resignation of Evo Morales last Sunday, El Alto has taken a unique path. The city of one million people maybe the most indigenous large city in the world: 76% Aymara and 9% Quechua in the lastest census. United in by the September and October 2003 protests, it ensured the downfall of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the last hardline Bolivian president to order deadly repression on a massive scale. Ever since, El Alto has a reputation for ethnic and working-class militancy. And yet this very militancy is often radically skeptical of political parties, prone to division, and adverse to being a pawn in others’ games.

And so, the city’s reaction to Morales’ overthrow has been complicated. Some angry crowds have circulated at night, targeting police installations, infrastructure, and other politically connected targets in self-proclaimed resistance to the coup. (An incendiary text by Ivan Apaza Calle, “They are not Evo supporters! They are Alteños, dammit!,” takes up this position.) As I’ve described on Twitter, these protest cut a wide swath of property destruction, especially on the first night of November 10. These attacks seemed destined to deepen divisions rather than unite Alteños in a common effort.

Other daytime protest events have mobilized “in defense of the wiphala,” but with more ambiguous views on President Morales himself. Judith Apaza wrote “So we can understand each other a bit…” from within this context.

A substantial but not overwhelmingly large cabildo of the mobilized, claiming to represent El Alto’s 14 districts and La Paz department’s 20 provinces met Saturday in El Alto. The gathering, which numbered in the low thousands, made a broad list of national and local demands, including the resignations of both Jeanine Añez and Soledad Chapetón.

The circulating crowds, property destruction and arson, have left other Alteños terrorized and there are many testimonial and interpersonal reports of neighborhoods dwelling in fear of overnight reprisals on them. For an example see, “El Alto overnight: Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail.” This weekend, this perspective emerged into a public current of dissension from the stance of hardline mobilization. Alteños are divided between a pro-MAS-IPSP Federation of Neighborhood Councils (FEJUVE) and an opposition FEJUVE contestaria that organizes separately. Some of these divisions have already proved very costly in human lives, notably in the 2016 protest and arson at El Alto’s city hall, which killed six people.

La Razón reported Saturday:

Since that day [November 9], mobilizations with blockades began and there were actions by groups engaging in vandalism who burned almost all of the police stations.

In opposition, the alternate FEJUVE, led by Néstor Yujra, instructed [its constituents] to raise the wiphala in their homes and asked the neighbors to take actions to safeguard their homes, making it clear that the sector does not support any political party.

The lootings divided many neighborhoods. Hence, in many sectors, it was decided not to march or blockade.

The first to demonstrate their rejection [of the “citywide” blockade] were the neighbors of Villa Esperanza, who resolved not to participate in marches or blockades. They were followed in this determination by the Pacajes-Caluyo zone, whose inhabitants decided to go out and un-block the roadways. A similar decision was undertaken by the October 12 neighborhood. The Túpac Katari neighborhood, who de-recognized their [pro-blockade] leadership and Huayna Potosí zone (Porvenir sector) who rejected “being used by MAS partisans.”

Another sector resisting the mobilization by the FEJUVE leadership is District 3. There, barricades have been put up and every night there are vigils to safeguard the Integral Police Station, which is the only one that has not been burned down.

http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/Divergencias-surgen-El_Alto-respecto-movilizaciones_0_3258874098.html

El Alteño newspaper ran the headline “El Alto closes week of protest divided” today. It also reports that neighbors pleading for peace marched with white flags on the city’s Avenida Cívica. Aside from these demobilization initatives, there are statements and manifestos like this feminist text rejecting the “fascism” of Jeanine Añez while refusing any partisan takeovers of grassroots organizations.

Each region and city in Bolivia seems to have a different dynamic at the moment. Just as the national situation is reaching its bleakest moment yet, this pivotal city is working out its own longstanding divisions. It remains to be seen whether and how Alteños can claim the political initiative, and participate in an effective struggle to keep the gains they have won and reverse the damage currently being done.

El Alto overnight: “Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail”

Since the forced resignation of Evo Morales, angry crowds have circulated in El Alto at night, targeting police installations, infrastructure, and other politically connected targets in self-proclaimed resistance to the coup. The circulating crowds, property destruction and arson, have left other Alteños terrorized and there are many testimonial and interpersonal reports of neighborhoods dwelling in fear of overnight reprisals on them. Thus, just as some foreign media outlets have celebrated El Alto as a heroic center of resistance, many of the updates coming directly from the city speak of fear, uncertainty, and division. Neighbors debate how they will respond to calls to mobilize that also paralyze and sometimes damage the city they live in. They debate risks to their own lives, reprisals from those who insist on mobilization, and the presence or lack of a common purpose with political parties like the MAS. This unease came into public focus this weekend in El Alto, and is also present in the writings coming out of the county.

I offer a brief text here that gives the flavor of such late night conversations in an uncertain time. Anthropologist Amy Kennemore (@KennemoreAmy) has translated this text by Rodrigo Urquila Flores shared via El Alto-based Colectivo Curva. It first appeared here in Spanish.

Since one (o’clock), we are in the streets of the neighborhood, in vigil, because we didn’t want them to surprise us.

It’s been years since I attended a neighborhood meeting.  The one yesterday at night was carried out in emergency because of the panic that we lived the day before.

Yes, there were people disguised as police. Yes, when they spoke foreign accents were recognized, presumably Venezuelans. And they seemed to know the territory well.

A woman told us that around noon, when she was preparing lunch for her family, someone beat on the door of her house. It was a tall man, all dressed in black, with a black helmet on too, on a motorcycle. He had a foreign accent she told us, and only asked vague questions, pointing to the closest light pole: “Does this light pole work well?” Scared, she responded; “Yes, youngster,” and took refuge in her house. Several neighbors, in the meeting, called him out at the same time for not having advised, to catch him between everyone. The motorcycle went away and didn’t return.

Another neighbor shared that he had to pay someone fees of their debt in a bank. All of the branches nearby were closed and he had to go all the way to the center with his wife and baby. Paid. Later, he saw an agglomeration of protestors, the majority of whom were Alteños, by Camacho Avenue. He wanted to get close. A policeman told him he should not take children to the march, that it was better that he went to his house and he wasn’t able to go further. “Then, a choca[1] passed, similar to the president [Áñez] and she said to my woman, ‘What are you doing here shitty chola,[2]and I responded, ‘What happened to you lady, are you drunk or drugged?’ And the police saw but they didn’t do anything.” When he finished speaking, there was concern. And shared pain. Until someone said “But not all qharas (white people) are like that, you have to turn the other cheek too, certainly this choca was ignorant, don’t pay attention to them.”

What can we do to get closer to all Bolivians? How to educate ourselves, to put ourselves in the place of the other?

Those that since victory do not do so resoundingly, they understand that there are joys that can hurt the losers, they understand that there is not a total victory unless it is a victory for all. And that the apparent losers of today can be the victorious tomorrow, again. And thus, the eternal circle, Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail always, of the national absurdity.

Burning barrel during a night scene in El Alto

[1] Colloquial term for person who has features associated with whiteness.  

[2]  In the Andean region, term referring traditional clothing worn by Aymara women.

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 came amid police repression that wounded over 100 protesters at Huayllani Bridge, nine of whom were killed, in Sacaba (Cochabamba Department) on Friday. The 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. 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.

“So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto”

Bolivian Judith Apaza (@judith_apaza) wrote this important thread “So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto.” The document was written in the context of the Alteño march into La Paz “in defense of the wiphala.” It first appeared on Twitter, starting with the tweet below. My translation follows…

So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto. The people of El Alto and the provinces convened by the CSUTCB peasant confederation, are mobilizing today because they feel that the process of inclusion and respect for indigenous and native campesinos is currently in danger.

This is seen in part to be exacerbated by:

  • Acts of aggression upon a patriotic symbol, the Wiphala, which is a symbol of indigenous peoples.
  • Acts of discrimination and racism that were carried out during the so-called “defense of democracy”
  • Minimization of [our] protest on social media by means of mockery and disrespect

There are ways that we can help to solve this tense situation:

  • Support the prosecution, under the law, of those who broke the law and burned the wiphala
  • Be more tolerant of those who think differently. This respect will bring us to genuine democracy.

Among us all, we need to guarantee:

  • That respect for indigenous peoples and native peasants is promoted, as well as their participation in building Bolivia
  • That spaces of dialogue are generated to seek out joint solution that don’t respond to personal interests.
  • The violence that we are currently living through is condemnable from anyone’s point of view. Let’s collaborate to avoid passing on message of hate and differentiate between the struggle of indigenous peoples and the vandalism that some are taking advantage of in order to do crime and destroy.

Finally, it’s necessary that the society as a whole be aware that dialogue is the only solution to heal the social fracture that we are living through, and to guarantee that what has been built in these years, as the Bolivian people, will not be lost.

I want to signal that this thread, with some modifications, was the result of a collective conversation within El Alto, and that it is hoped that it can help mutual understanding of that which has been broken apart in recent days.

Judith Apaza
November 12, 2019

“Beyond Dichotomies”: One Bolivian voice on the present moment

I’ve translated the following essay by Roger Adán Chambi Mayta, a Bolivian living in Brazil, because it speaks directly to many of the questions that my friends following current events Bolivia are asking. I will be sharing multiple pieces here and linking to others. Not every thought aligns with my own, but I think it’s vita—now, more than ever—I that we hear from Bolivians who are wrestling with the future of their society. And that we slow down our desires to put the Bolivian situation into a pre-defined schema, at least until we understand it well and hear from those on the frontlines. This piece appeared on the Colectivo Curva Facebook page, which is filled with a vocal and diverse debate among grassroots Bolivian voices.

Beyond Dichotomies

“They have lost their best leader!” “Now the Right will come back!” “The poor indigenous!” These are some of the comments that I have received from my friends in Brazil after Evo’s resignation. For many here, Evo Morales represented a government that was of the left, progressive, anticapitalist, and above all: the principal defender of indigenous peoples and of the political vision of Vivir Bien [Living Well: in sufficiency, community, and harmony with nature]! The moment I utter my first criticism, they have already branded me as being a defender of the coup against the indigenous former president. “If the left goes down, the right comes back. Are you from the left or the right?,” a friend asks me on messenger. Once again arises the typical and simple dichotomy that seeks to put some on the “revolutionary” side and the rest among the reactionaries. As if things were that way, so simple, as if there was only a single question of taking on one ideological title. Well now, I understand that these readings respond to a Brazilian idiosyncrasy, my friends ask me questions and make their judgments in an exercise that is an analogy to what they have experienced with Temer and Bolsonaro, and I don’t judge them for it. But we are talking about Bolivia, a country that has a long tradition of indigenous struggles and where the left and right have always met the expectations of the white-mestizo sector, which is racist and discriminatory against its racialized others. That is why I tell my friends that, it shouldn’t be strange that there are Aymaras who are critical of the “left” government of Evo Morales and who are not because of that defenders of the right.

Are there reactionaries that want to claim hegemony of the current violent conjuncture for their own benefit? Evidently so. Aren’t Bolsonaro and Trump celebrating this context? I have no doubt. But, out of fear of that, should we have continued with Evo for fourth term? For that, did we have to keep watching as more white-mestizo become newly rich in the name of the indigenous government? For that, do we have to bear the instrumentalization of our history, of our culture for the benefit of a precious few?

“But think on the structural level, of the world system, of imperialism!,” my friend questions me, and it’s certain that we must think of the macro level. But the first to think of the consequences should have been the government! It was they who sacrificed the so-called “process of change” by not building new legitimate leaderships that could continue their government. A fourth term, besides being illegal was intolerable! Once I heard an Aymara grandfather say to me, “Evo says he’s indigenous, but he doesn’t carry out the practices of the community; the authorities must always rotate, for the health of all.” And now I ask myself, for all that they talk of being the government of Vivir Bien, To what degree would a fourth term bring us closer to Vivir Bien? Would my friends have asked the MASistas that question? Of course not! It wouldn’t even have mattered to them!

But now, Evo is no longer in the country and has left his people that he said he loved, in the midst of a fierce social convulsion. The wiphala, the historic flag of the Andean peoples, has been erroneously labeled as a synonym of the MAS. The people who supported it so much on social media now say nothing.

It seems that they are happy how the people carries on confronting one another after their manipulative tactics. The reactionaries who want to take advantage of the moment will not hesitate to burn the wiphala so as to strike fear in all those people who are racialized.

It’s important to say that Evo in his last days in the presidency called upon indigenous communities to protect his government (filled with non-indigenous people), and now that he is no longer in the country, left behind a people confronting one another, with pain and sadness in the streets.

But there is resistance, I see on the screen my Aymara brothers and sisters in the streets of El Alto, supporting demonstrations against the discourse of discrimination, and they shout: No more racism! Respect our symbols! El Alto on its feet, never on its knees! After the resignation of the president, the population did not stand back with its arms crossed. Evo is gone, but we won’t accept a Camacho either! “Evo is the hope of Latin America,” they say to me here. Was it just Evo? Was it the person? I think that this reading was wrong; it wasn’t that Evo, the caudillo, was the Latin American hope, but rather that he represented the beginning of that hope. A racialized person of the lower middle class, part of an indigenous nation with an insurrectionary tradition that arrived in power.

The hope of Latin America comes from those peoples who, like the Alteño people in this moment, have pushed beyond those simple dichotomies of left and wright and who go out into the streets to defend their rights, their family, their work, their symbols, their history, and their country.

Roger Adán Chambi Mayta, Brasil
12/11/2019

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.

Q & A on the Bolivian electoral conflict

Protests about the October 20 Bolivian election are now in their ninth day. Monday September 28 saw significant protest clashes between pro-government and anti-government demonstrators in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and La Paz, as well as between the police and anti-government demonstrators in Tarija. Listed below are some simple question-and-answer thoughts about the current situation (unapologetically, I’m sharing the questions asked by a news wire service), followed by other sources of information.

Why do the protests cover the whole country?

At the ballot box (see my analysis here) and in the streets the pro- and anti-Evo Morales coalitions in the current Bolivian electoral crisis are both multiracial and multi-class, although anti-Evo forces are stronger in urban areas.

Protesters in Bolivia first took the streets on the day after the election when the mysterious suspension of the “rapid count” of the results ended and Evo Morales surged past the 10% threshold he needed to claim a first-round victory. It was at this moment that allegations of fraud became widespread, although there was limited evidence as of that day. Those protests and the six days of mobilizations since have taken place in capitals in all nine of Bolivia’s departments. Carlos Mesa won a plurality of votes in all of those cities, with his strongest support coming in Potosí and Santa Cruz.

Relevantly, Potosí and Santa Cruz had been on opposite sides during the 2008 political crisis, in which separatist movements in the eastern departments refused to recognize the constitutional reforms led by the Morales government. Potosí was a bastion of pro-MAS votes in pre-2014 elections, but has had a series of mass movements since 2010 to demand greater investment and development in Bolivia’s most impoverished region, setting it at odds with the national government.

The protests built upon pre-election cabildos (public mass meetings that claim to speak for the city or region) held in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, La Paz, Tarija, and Potosí. These meetings all pledged to defend “February 21” and “democracy.” That is, they promised to uphold the 2016 referendum vote denying Morales the right to run for a fourth term, and to defend the 2019 vote from any fraud or manipulation. Many Bolivians were ready to take to the streets on a moment’s notice after the elections.

What is the present scenario in Bolivia?

President Morales maintains a strong base of support, which is stronger in the rural areas, but not overwhelmingly in any one region of the country. Since late last week, Morales has mobilized his supporters to “defend his victory.” In some areas of the country, opposing protesters have faced off in the streets, causing injuries to one another.

Confidence in the electoral outcome, declared in favor of Morales over the weekend, is low. Morales indicates that he plans to remain in office for a fourth term. The OAS electoral observer mission has offered to audit the first round ballot, which the government has accepted while stating the audit will not be binding. Meanwhile, the OAS, the EU, and the political opposition are calling for a second-round presidential vote as a measure to provide confidence in the electoral victory of the next president.

At the moment, the two sides have incompatible demands and have not accepted a common forum for resolving the outcome of the election, leading to the danger of escalating tension and on-the-street violence.

What can happen with the economy?

Both sides are engaging in common means of protest in Bolivia: general strikes and road blockades. The opposition is framing its mobilizations as a national strike, and supplementing it with street blockades in major cities. Meanwhile government supporters are both mobilizing members to the cities and beginning highway blockades in rural areas that could isolate major cities from supplies. Prolonged strikes interrupt daily business, domestic and international commerce, and tourism; indeed this is their main leverage. All of these things are longstanding features of Bolivian politics, but the prospect of simultaneous national strikes and blockades in opposition to one another could raise the economic impact to an unusually high level.

Other sources: CEDIB has compiled a chronology of events (es) from the election through October 24, and promises to update it. The official vote count, which gave Evo Morales 47.08% of the vote, more than 10 points ahead of Carlos Mesa with 36.51% of the vote, is online (be sure to choose “Mundo” from the drop-down for complete results). The OAS Electoral Observer Mission has published its preliminary report criticizing the handling of the election. I maintain a list of Twitter accounts on/in Bolivia (usual social media disclaimers apply). I will be writing more on the conflict; watch this space.

Photo above: Confrontations flared between transport drivers who mobilized to break up blockades by anti-government activists mobilized “in defense of the vote” on Avenida Panamericana in Cochabamba, October 28. Photo published by Cochabamba newspaper Opinión.

Understanding the end of the Evo Morales majority

The October 20, 2019, election in Bolivia marks a watershed moment in the electoral fortunes of Evo Morales and the party he leads, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). When Morales was elected in 2005, he was the first candidate to achieve an absolute majority (53.7%) of Bolivian voters in at least half a century. The MAS-IPSP was the leading force of a three-fifths majority alliance in the Constitutional Assembly of 2006 and 2007, which produced a new constitution approved by 61.4% of voters in January 2009. In the next two elections, in 2009 and 2014, Evo and the MAS-IPSP won over 60% of the vote, and gained two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

A referendum to authorize Morales to run for a fourth term was held on February 21, 2016. Despite a vigorous campaign, Morales was unable to secure majority support to amend the constitution. He finished with 48.7% of the vote.

This week, Morales has again fallen short of the 50% mark, winning between 44% and 46.85% of the vote. Vote counting is ongoing, but the key question is not whether Morales will win majority, but whether he will outpace his leading challenger by more than 10% and avoid a runoff. In the legislature, the MAS-IPSP will lose its supermajority, but will remain the majority party in the Chamber of Deputies and may end up with half the Senators, or one or two more.

While the final vote totals are not in, we have both a broad-based rapid count (TREP) by the Plurinational Electoral Organ of some 83% of the votes cast and a parallel analysis by researchers at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and Fundación Jubileo called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your vote counts”). The differences between these two sources are minor, and putting either into context lets us see the overall trends. (Since the re-started rapid count is the object of speculation about vote manipulation and the official count is incomplete and rapidly changing, I’m not using their data here.)

Morales lost votes across the board since 2014, 2016

Compared with the last presidential election in 2014, Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP lost support in all nine of Bolivia’s departments, receiving 15.9% altogether. (All percentages in this post are percentages of votes cast, not percentage declines.) The sharpest losses for the governing party came in Chuquisaca, Potosí, and Oruro. Potosí and Oruro are traditional sources of strength for the MAS-IPSP, but have been fading for nearly a decade. In the two most populous departments, La Paz department fell away from the MAS-IPSP slightly more than the national average, while Santa Cruz’s vote share decline slightly less. The northern Amazonian departments of Beni and Pando saw the smallest declines.

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