Analysis: Why did the ‘international community’ turn its back on Bolivian democracy?

“Having abandoned Bolivian democracy to the coup, the international community then stood by while repeated promises of elections were transgressed.”

History repeated itself on 10 November 2019, when the elected President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was overthrown.

He had, since 2006, reduced the national poverty rate from 60 to 35 per cent through a welter of social programmes and reforms, backed by a powerful mass movement, drawn from organised workers and the long-oppressed indigenous populations. It was a remarkable achievement in a country so badly scarred by generations of extractive colonialism, and latterly reduced to a laboratory for extreme liberal economic experiments.

The rise of Morales and his party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), was one of many such popular democratic projects in the modern history of South America. But like so many others, in a rapid and bewildering rush of accusations, social disorder and organised violence, it collapsed in a coup with the backing of western powers.

It took just 21 days from the October elections to the storming of MAS buildings and the installation of a far-right coup administration. Morales fled the country, and many of his supporters were hounded, assaulted and brutalised.

The overthrow had been given a veneer of legitimacy by the Organisation of American States (OAS), long seen by the continents leftists as an instrument of western powers and their allied domestic elites. The group had claimed election irregularities, accusations which turned out to be false.

It scarcely needs to be said that the Trump administration leapt to the defence of the coup, hailing it as “a significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere.”

The EU followed suite, recognising the self-proclaimed president Jeanine Añez.

In the UK, the liberal left paper of record, The Guardian, published an editorial establishing its view of the ousted government. Morales, it said “…went back on environmental pledges. The trappings of power became increasingly grandiose. His decision to run for a fourth term, defying the result of a referendum on axing term limits, exhausted supporters’ patience; union and indigenous allies peeled away. Then came the warning from the Organisation of American States – since challenged – of “clear manipulation” in October’s elections, triggering his departure. His failure to nurture potential successors has left his party, Mas, struggling to find a replacement.”

Scottish based Brazilian journalist Nathália Urban told Source too many western leftists were “quick to embrace a narrative condemning an elected indigenous leader. We see that there’s still that feeling that ‘we need to take care of the stupid indigenous’ in Latin America the way the colonisers had. As someone from Latin America, I find it really disturbing.”

“The left in Latin America,” she continues, “doesn’t have the luxury that you have” of political peace and political expression, in a continent where the right “kills people with guns”. And yet environmentalists, NGOs and supposedly progressive journals and institutions rapidly accepted the smashing of democratic norms.

This is not to say, by any means, that world opinion distanced itself from MAS and the indigenous and workers’ movements. There has been a long tradition of solidarity between parts of the western left and ‘Pink Tide’ movements. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave fulsome support to MAS, and objected to the coup in 2019.

Indeed, when Corbyn spoke out against the military overthrow in November of that year, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “Unbelievable. The Organisation of American States refused to certify the Bolivian election because of systemic flaws. The people are protesting and striking on an unprecedented scale. But Jeremy Corbyn puts Marxist solidarity ahead of democracy.”

Supporters of democracy in Bolivia would soon be vindicated. On 18 October MAS was re-elected on an overwhelming mandate, led by new leader Luis Arce. The coup leaders were rejected.

It is rare indeed for a western-backed coup to be overthrown so peacefully. We should caveat this; the movement in Bolivia did not overthrow the authoritarian coup by ‘a vote’. That vote took place after a year of mounting class tension, and the rigorous self-organisation of the workers and indigenous movements. Parts of that movement are armed, with an experience of clashes with employers and the state (including under Morales) and the local elites know that more direct conflict was likely if a democratic process was not sanctioned.

This year of struggles was roundly ignored by western media and institutions. Having abandoned Bolivian democracy to the coup, the international community then stood by while repeated promises of elections were transgressed. The election was supposed to take place on 3 May, and was delayed a second time on 6 September, as the coup regime desperately tried to find ways of holding on to power.

In August, when elections were suspended again, there were huge mobilisations and a general strike, roads were blocked around the country and Bolivia ground to a halt.

Despite their role in the coup, the OAS returned as election observers in the country. Some election observers and journalists were harassed, including by the coup regime representative to OAS. Meanwhile, there are currently no plans for OAS observers to attend the US Presidential election in November. Despite all this, the organisation remains the internationally recognised forum for the continent, disavowed only by some Latin American governments who are threatened by it.

For the movement in Bolivia, the fight is far from over. The domestic rich and political right, backed by the ‘international community’ establishment, will seek further opportunities for destabilisation or overthrow. The question is, when will democrats universally recognise the pattern of accusation, overthrow and western collusion for what it is?

Picture courtesy of Danielle Pereira