Coup: A story of violence and resistance in Bolivia by Linda Farthing and Thomas Becker (Haymarket Books, 2021).
Though it has largely vanished from western media, in November 2019 a United States-supported military coup in Bolivia ousted the president, Evo Morales.
“We’ll coup whoever we want!” tweeted Elon Musk in response to a Twitter user who alleged the U.S. overthrew ex-Bolivian President Evo Morales so that they could “obtain lithium there.”
Evo Morales, a former coca leaf grower and union activist, became the 65th president of Bolivia in 2006. Morales has led the Movement for Socialism Party (MAS) since 1998 and is widely-regarded as the first Indigenous president in the country’s history. He rose to prominence in the massive protest movement against water privatization in Cochabamba and strikes over natural gas extraction and corruption by the previous government.
On November 10, 2019, after 21 days of protests and violence following an election that saw him win a fourth term as president, Evo Morales was forced to announce his resignation. It had become clear that armed forces were turning on the government and elected members of the MAS party and activists were facing violence and threats against them and their families. Morales had captured 47 percent of the vote, more than 10 points higher than the next closest rival, but the rightwing seized on the moment and disputed the results. Weeks of organized and escalating violent protests finally saw Bolivia’s armed forces side with the unelected opposition figures to oust Morales and other elected MAS officials.
Understanding Morales’ rise to power
Coup is an honest, reflective and clear investigation into the events of 2019 and how they came to be possible, with crucial lessons for the left.
Farthing and Becker give a brief overview of recent Bolivian history and provide context for Morales’ rise to power. When Evo Morales was elected in 2005, Bolivia’s social movements were among the world’s most militant. In this context, the MAS government, like many other governments in Latin America at the time, worked to turn the economic boom based on skyrocketing global demand for commodities (particularly from China) into transformative redistributive policies to benefit the rural, poor, working class and Indigenous people.
These policies worked, as Farthing and Becker note: “between 2002 and 2012, Latin America’s middle class (by local standards) expanded annually until it compromised up to one-third of the population. Poverty shrank: from 2000 to 2014, the proportion of those living on less than four dollars a day plummeted from almost half the population to a quarter.”
The government also played a critical role in pushing for alternative trade networks in the region, hosting global climate change conferences and pushing for greater indigenous rights locally and globally.
While that is a very quick overview of the incredible things accomplished by Morales and the MAS government since being elected, it hopefully conveys the importance that the working class, Indigenous activist brought to the world as head of the Bolivian government.
But how could a leader so transformative and popular be deposed by a coup based on nothing more than lies? Perhaps Coup’s greatest strength is the authors’ ability to clearly state their opposition to the undemocratic coup, while honestly reckoning with the context which led to the coup.
By 2014, the resource boom was over and the economy in Bolivia, like those in other Latin American countries, contracted. This posed a problem for countries like Bolivia, who had implemented welfare-state policies “more akin to those of Western Europe” than Cuba. The underlying structures of capitalism still persisted and beyond some targeted and partial nationalizations, the oligarchs of Bolivia still had power from which to work. These forces resented the power that Indigenous, poor and working class Bolivians had gained. In 2019, they saw a weakness and exploited it.
Social movements key rise (and downfall) of Morales, MAS
Farthing and Becker write that many Bolivians, including those supportive of the MAS had grown weary of Evo Morales and were sympathetic to the need for a change. “Their apathy was not simply on account of the tedium of the same leader; the voters themselves had changed. Opposition to the MAS had mushroomed and the social movements that had thrust them into power were, for the most part, shadows of their former selves.”
A whole new generation had experienced higher living standards and never suffered economic deprivation or political struggles. Farthing and Becker note, “meeting the increased expectations of this generation in a country that is still among South America’s poorest poses huge barriers, no matter what government is in power.”
A 2016 referendum to extend Evo Morales’ term limits gave the right wing what it wanted. Amidst a right-wing smear campaign, a slim majority (51.3 percent) voted against changing the constitution in Evo’s favour, but Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (TCP) ruled that he could run again.
By this time, 68 percent of Bolivians opposed him running again and the right-wing was ready to proclaim anything Morales and the MAS did from then on out as anti-democratic. After 14 years, the social movements that were once so militant were in some ways tamed with diminished capacity and the economic elites had been empowered by the resource boom, which set the stage for Morale’s ousting.
Another strength of the book is the analysis of contemporary coups, such as those in Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti and Honduras. Farthing and Becker discuss how “branding is used to give the twenty-first century coups a veneer of legitimacy…the coup was labelled a return to democracy, and the protest movements that ousted Morales were lauded as organic, nonviolent crusaders who foiled a dictatorship and advanced human rights.”
It is impossible to summarize all the insights from Coup, but it is an informative read that squarely recognizes and celebrates the achievements of Morales and MAS while wrestling with some of its limits. In all of their analysis, Farthing and Becker emphasize the role of social movements that brought MAS to power in 2006 and overturned a coup and returned MAS to power in 2020.
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate