How middle class Bolivia learned to stop worrying and love the coup

In and around La Paz, middle class Bolivians have fallen under the spell of the junta’s propaganda campaign against Evo and his supporters. And with a presidential election looming, the country’s elites are battling for power.

By Wyatt Reed

La Paz, Bolivia – As a US-backed military coup seized power from Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Bolivia appeared set for a prolonged political struggle between outraged citizens and the putschists. But just weeks later, the seemingly non-stop violence unleashed by the military has given way to an uneasy calm, with the new regime having largely achieved its goal of pacifying the country through a combination of iron-fisted political repression and co-optation of former MAS leaders and the heads of the strongest opposition social movements.

Gas is once again being pumped out from Senkata, where the military massacred almost a dozen residents of El Alto two weeks ago. Basic goods which has doubled or tripled in price have returned to normal, to the delight of business owners throughout La Paz–and the working class stronghold of El Alto, the epicenter of anti-coup protests around the capital. 

“Peace,” declared self-proclaimed Bolivian Pres. Jeanine Añez on Nov. 30th, “has returned to Bolivia.”

But just what kind of peace, exactly, and for whom?

There has been little peace for the families of the dead, many of whom are too fearful of state-sanctioned retribution to denounce their loved ones’ killers. Those slayings, which took place mere weeks ago, are now old wounds, and anyone accused of reopening them them – like the delegation of Argentine human rights specialists who came to record victims’ testimonies – is subject to arbitrary detention, harassment, and threats.

The most notable threat so far came from Interior Minister Arturo Murillo, who issued a mafia-style warning to the group of “foreigners” whom he accused of “coming to try to set the country ablaze”: “We’re watching you, and we’re following you… The first false step you take trying to cause terrorism or sedition, you’ll be seeing the police.”

“Pacification” is the word on everybody’s lips. Opponents of the coup regime are forced to balance their calls for restoring Morales to power with the desire for stability that most Bolivians now express. Paradoxically, the poor and working class citizens most likely to have blockaded La Paz and El Alto are also those most susceptible to the economic consequences of countrywide disruption. 

Even within the working class stronghold of El Alto, there’s a surprisingly strong contingent of rising middle class residents who were easily taken in by government propaganda warning them that impoverished Morales supporters were coming to assault residents and invade their homes. Throughout the less-impoverished neighborhoods, effigies of thieves hang scarecrow-style from lampposts and the walls are littered with warnings to would-be aggressors. 

Graffiti in El Alto reads: “This neighborhood is organized. Thieves who are caught will be lynched!!! Suspicious vehicles will be burned!!!”

“I can’t go out at night because of all these thieves and rapists lurking about,” one panicked middle class woman from a relatively well-to-do section of El Alto, remarked to me. She had spent days glued to the national news, where every channel has been melded together by the junta into a unitary propaganda mechanism injecting terror into the minds of its viewers at all hours. Older Bolivians who do not seek alternative sources of news on social media have proven particularly susceptible to the fear-mongering.

One of the many scarecrows hanging in middle class El Alto neighborhoods as a warning to potential thieves

While the coup’s ruling-class financiers and its middle class supporters were holed up in their compounds, their much more numerous victims have borne the brunt of the consequences of the battle to restore the democratically elected Morales govt, whose term doesn’t expire until January 22, 2020.

Ironically, these elements are relying on weapons purchased by the government of Morales to finish their dirty job, and they themselves were, in many ways, the product of the prosperity that the dreaded former president brought to the country.

Grown under Evo, the middle class revolts against him

After three successive terms in office, that government has left the putschists who seized power with poverty and debt-to-GDP halved, and a series of popular social programs and business initiatives for which the Añez regime has wasted no time in taking credit. 

These plans–mass electrification campaigns, airport renovations, and the creation of Latin America’s first electric car–are emblematic of the vision and strategy which even the staunchly anti-communist Washington Post admitted just weeks before the coup had created an “emerging middle class of Bolivians” who “beg to differ” that socialism doesn’t work. 

Source: Macrotrends

But in many ways, the creation of this middle-class – and what many MAS members now lament as a failure to simultaneously mitigate the increasing self-interestedness of one-time ‘have-nots’ who became ‘haves’ with educational or cultural reforms – eventually led to the circumstances that enabled the ruling class to undo it.  

People who had nothing now have something to lose. The miners who largely control the Central Obrera de Bolivia – likely the strongest union in the country – were among the most militant activists during the 2003 ‘Gas Wars’ in Bolivia, known for their propensity for using their supplies of dynamite for political ends.

Thanks to massive wage hikes resulting from both the union’s strength and the sympathy of the Morales-led government, many formerly-impoverished miners in Bolivia now more closely resemble their US counterparts, driving around in lifted trucks, purchasing luxury goods and guzzling expensive alcohol. With the class character of once-revolutionary movements changing, their class interests shifted as well. 

The Bolivian military, whose technological capacities were seriously strengthened under the administration of Evo Morales, has since used the hardware purchased by that government to strengthen its grip on power after overthrowing him on November 10th. The Hercules military transport plane used to transport beef, chicken, and eggs and mitigate the effects of the blockades? Purchased by Morales’ government. Helicopters which the Bolivian Air Forces used to rain down death on activists blocking access to the Senkata gas plant? 31 of the 39 in their fleet were bought under Morales’ watch. In a cruel irony, the most powerful weapons used to ensure the overthrow of Morales were in fact purchased by Morales. 

Add to all of this a shocking level of unity among the ruling class, and you get the perfect recipe for a successful coup. But fractures are once again appearing as they vie for power in a post-Morales Bolivia, with high-level functionaries bitterly and publicly denouncing the “transitional government” after being fired or resigning.

Just days after his appointment, Viceminister of Political Communications Danilo Romano renounced the position, stating on Facebook that he was unwilling to issue draconian layoffs of his staff. 

The temporary unity of the Bolivian elite is rapidly becoming a circular firing line, as power brokers jostle for leadership positions in the next government – and for the presidency. In paving the way for her own run for the office she currently occupies illegitimately, Jeanine Áñez fired one of her top ministers, Minister Jerjes Justiniano, apparently because he was insufficiently loyal.

The far-right paramilitary organizer and leader of the coup, Luis Fernando Camacho, has also thrown his hat into the race, securing alliances with at least five parties. However, Camacho’s fellow right-wing powerbroker, Marco Pumari of the Potosi Civic Committee, has so far resisted joining his campaign.

For its part, MAS has yet to decide who or how it will vie for the presidency. Though the party’s ranks have winnowed out since the post-coup purge, its most ideologically dedicated adherents remain in the fight. 

From his exile in Mexico, Bolivia’s most popular politician, Evo Morales, is vowing to return home to oversee a campaign in which he is forbidden from running. Wanted for unspecified “crimes against humanity,” the ousted leader has been defiant:

“Am I more useful in exile in Mexico or jailed in Bolivia? I will be where I’m most useful…” Morales stated. “I was imprisoned and that doesn’t scare me.”