HAHR Forum on Contemporary Bolivia and History

Sarah Hines is assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma. Her manuscript-in-progress is titled, “Water for All: Community, Property, and Revolution in Modern Bolivia.” Her article “The Power and Ethics of Vernacular Modernism: The Misicuni Dam Project in Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1944–2017” appeared in HAHR 98.2.

Revolutions and Counterrevolutions in Bolivia, Past and Present

Since Morales resigned on November 10, 2019, debate has arisen in Bolivia and beyond over whether to call his ouster a coup. Those opposed to labeling it a coup worry that doing so overemphasizes the sway of the military and ignores the role that Morales’s own missteps and popular protests against him played in forcing his resignation. Hesitancy also owes to concern that calling his ouster a coup could open the door to deeming popular revolts that overthrow right-wing governments like those in 2003 and 2005 coups as well.

After the October 20, 2019, elections, cross-class and multitendency protests disputed Evo Morales’s claim to have won reelection to a fourth term. Among the protesters were masked youths from wealthy neighborhoods who attacked MAS officials, burned their families’ homes, beat up people who “looked” like MASistas (i.e., an indigenous person or a peasant), and burned wiphalas. The police in the country’s cities joined the protests on November 8, and two days later military top brass “suggested” that Morales resign. While the military did not take power itself, the result was nevertheless a coup. A small unelected group of elites took advantage of the crisis to seize power, repress Morales supporters with deadly force, and overturn the policies of his democratically elected administration. Their goal is nothing less than the destruction of the MAS, the social reforms it has implemented, and the social movements it represents.

Recent events in Bolivia have much in common with the November 1964 coup that overthrew Víctor Paz Estenssoro and brought rule by the MNR party that led the 1952 Bolivia revolution to an end. Soon after Paz won a third term, teachers struck over pay, students protested the government, miners battled the army, and demonstrators of diverse political tendencies took to the streets. General René Barrientos used the political opening to launch a coup supported by a motley group of MNR opponents that included former MNRistas. Barrientos, who became vice president in 1964 against Paz’s wishes, vowed that his regime would continue and indeed “restore” the 1952 revolution. Yet tellingly, when a crowd of workers celebrating Paz’s departure attempted to enter Plaza Murillo, the military forcibly prevented them from approaching the presidential palace.[1] A popular uprising gave way to a military government that allied itself with the peasantry but continued the crackdown on workers and especially miners’ unions begun under the MNR.

The MNR government had overseen radical changes after the 1952 revolution that improved workers, peasants, and indigenous community members’ lives. Under pressure from these bases, the MNR nationalized the mines, redistributed hacienda land and water sources, reallocated urban housing, and expanded the vote to all adults. But tensions and conflicts within the revolutionary coalition emerged long before the 1964 coup. Peasants pushed for a more radical agrarian reform, miners struck against their new MNR overlords, the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) protested the US-imposed stabilization plan, urban residents demanded basic services, and the MNR leadership itself fractured. Both Víctor Paz (1952–56, 1960–64) and Hernán Siles (1956–60) justified economic austerity and violent attacks against challengers on the basis of economic development. It is little wonder then that few defended Paz in November 1964.

Like the MNR, Evo Morales’s MAS government worked to modernize the economy through state-led development and resource distribution. Morales (partially) nationalized hydrocarbons, increased taxes on extractive industries, and distributed rents from these industries to workers and the poor. But when forced to choose between top-down state-led development and the demands of its bases, the Morales administration consistently chose the former. MAS leaders infiltrated organizations that questioned state policies and branded anyone who critiqued the government a right-wing agent of imperialism. In response to a six-page manifesto from Cochabamba activists opposing the TIPNIS road project, for instance, Vice President Álvaro García Linera published a 166-page book branding the activists “‘resentidos’ políticos” (bitter politickers) and “oenegistas” (NGO agents) acting as the “‘conciencia desdichada’ de la derecha política restauradora” (“wretched defenders” of the restorationist right).[2] Like in 1964, a developmentalist agenda that sacrificed the interests of its poor and especially indigenous bases on the altar of economic development coupled with an either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us attitude toward critics of all stripes, as well as an unwillingness to pass the torch, ultimately doomed Morales. Unlike in 1964, however, huge numbers of supporters defended Morales on the streets, seeing his continued presidency as the best hope for defending social movements’ gains over the past three decades.

Revolutions are processes carried out by a diversity of people with different visions of a more just future. They are contentious periods not only because of who and what they are up against but also due to contests within the revolutionary coalition. The MNR and MAS governments initially weathered upheavals and challenges, but by attacking their supporters they pushed key sectors into opposition and made those groups vulnerable to commandeering by reactionary forces. Whether the 2019 coup will usher in a full-on counterrevolution will depend on whether ordinary Bolivians on both sides of the barricades can unite to oppose the Bible-waving racist Right that currently occupies the Palacio Quemado.

[1] James Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins (London: Verso, 1984), 119.
[2] Álvaro García Linera, El “oenegismo”, Enfermedad infantil del derechismo (Vicepresidencia del Estado Plurinacional, 2011), 7, 166.

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Top image: Mercha a favor de Evo Morales – Buenos Aires. November 18, 2019. Photograph by Santiago Sito, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Find the original here.)