In the first year of the new government of Luis Arce and the Movement toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS) party, Bolivia has made significant progress in restoring the damage done to the country under the previous right-wing-coup regime led by Jeanine Áñez.
The 2019 coup, planned well in advance by right-wing opposition leaders and senior officers in the military, anticipated that long-term and consistently reelected president Evo Morales would win the presidential election.
Foreseeing the final result would hand Morales a clear first-round victory as votes from rural, indigenous-populated and Morales-supporting areas were counted, the right wing launched violent protests. These were unchecked by the police, who mutinied — first in Cochabamba and then elsewhere.
Unconstitutionally installed in Morales’s place, after he stood down to avoid further bloodshed, was Áñez, then a hard-right deputy senate speaker.
Under the coup regime, a wave of human rights abuses took place. Trade unionists, indigenous activists, and MAS supporters were targeted, with large-scale violation of peoples’ rights and the loss of lives — including the racist massacre of indigenous protestors at Sacaba and Senkata by military and police forces.
Throughout its eleven months in charge, the coup regime was characterized by little beyond widespread repression and a neoliberal approach to economic and social policy.
Critically, it failed to develop a coherent strategy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate the accompanying economic downturn. Instead, public sector spending was cut drastically in the fourth quarter of 2019. Public sector wages were sharply reduced, and the nominal value of the minimum wage was frozen for the first time since 2006.
During 2020, four hundred thousand Bolivians lost their jobs, income from remittances went down by almost half, and poverty and inequality soared as savage austerity measures took effect. Foreign debt was increased to $11.2 billion, including a $300 million loan from the International Monetary Fund, while state-owned companies were put up for privatization or gifted to coup supporters.
But throughout this, a broad coalition of trade union, peasant, and indigenous movements, together with neighborhood organizations, unions of informal workers, and the MAS, heroically resisted the repression and called for fresh elections to be held.
When finally held in October 2020, MAS candidate Luis Arce scored a decisive victory with 55 percent of the votes against the 29 percent of his nearest challenger, former president Carlos Mesa. MAS also retained control of both houses of Congress. When we say, “Don’t mourn, organize,” we are inspired by these achievements of people-powered politics in Bolivia.
How, then, have President Arce and the MAS tackled the legacy of the coup regime?
To tackle the devastating impact on peoples’ incomes of one of the worst economic crises in the country’s recent history, one of Arce’s first acts was to sign into law the Bonus Against Hunger initiative. This had previously been approved by the MAS-controlled national assembly, only to be blocked by Áñez.
Payments began in December to help over four million people, reducing the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable families as well as reactivating the Bolivian economy.
Together with other measures, such as an increase in pensions and a yearly tax on the very rich whose wealth exceeds US$4.3 million, this has helped the Bolivian economy to grow by 5.3 percent in the first four months of 2021.
For the longer term, the government is developing a sustainable industrial strategy and as part of this has also created a US$214 million fund to finance initiatives by municipal governments and indigenous communities, especially those focused on productive infrastructure and projects.
On health, the Áñez coup regime mismanaged the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, including corruptly buying overpriced ventilators unfit for intensive care use.
Outsourcing, privatization, and crony capitalism have characterized the pandemic response of many right-wing governments — including here in Britain — but the good news is that Bolivia has shown this approach can be overturned.
Arce’s government put in place a three-pronged strategy to tackle the pandemic. This has involved widespread testing carried out by municipalities, coordination between departmental and municipal governments, and national provision of the necessary tests, medical supplies, and staffing; and purchase of vaccines.
By October, more than 60 percent of the country’s population over eighteen years of age had had a first vaccine dose, while 47 percent of the population had been double vaccinated.
On the international stage, Bolivia has begun rebuilding links with allies and partners dismantled by the coup regime. The government has renewed its support for regional integration in Latin America by resuming its participation in three of the most important regional organizations for trade, dialogue, and security, ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), CELAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños, Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) and UNASUR (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, Union of South American Nations). Diplomatic relations have been restored with Venezuela and Cuba and a wide-ranging agreement signed with Mexico.
Bolivia has been unfairly impacted by the effects of climate change, and at the upcoming COP26 discussions in Glasgow, Bolivia will again be at the forefront of arguing for real action and international cooperation to tackle the climate catastrophe.
At home, the new government is committed to holding to account those responsible for a range of crimes and misdemeanors committed under the coup regime. For his role in the massacre of protesters at Sacaba and Senkata, the Bolivian chief of police is facing criminal proceedings — as is Áñez, who is facing charges relating to the systematic violation of human rights, sedition, and conspiracy against the Morales administration, as well as corruption.
Given the degree of military support for the coup and the coup regime, President Arce also moved quickly to make top-level changes in the armed forces to reduce the likelihood of their again siding with reactionary moves against the elected government.
But the government and its supporters internationally still need to be on their guard against destabilization moves by antidemocratic elements of the right-wing. Opposition organizations, led by main actors in the 2019 coup like Luis Fernando Camacho and Carlos Mesa, recently called for a “civic strike” against the Arce government.
Among their demands were the reinstatement of police officers involved in the coup and the dropping of charges against the Cochala Youth Resistance (a paramilitary group involved in destabilization activities), while Mesa and Camacho also demanded freedom for Áñez.
However, thousands of citizens in various parts of the country responded by demonstrating in the streets in support of the government.
There is a lot we can learn from the Bolivian left’s achievements in power — from protecting nature in its constitution, to embracing multiculturalism, to organizing in communities and workplaces for real change.
As internationalists, we must continue to show our support for the MAS, the social movements, and the Arce government against any attempts by reactionary forces — inside and outside the country — to turn the clock back and forcefully restore a right-wing regime intent on destroying MAS’s efforts to advance democracy, human rights, equality, and social progress in Bolivia.