Opposition Sets Democracy on Fire in Bolivia

Hugo Moldiz Mercado

The opposition strategy to generate an atmosphere of social upheaval by Oct. 20 combines environmental discourse and the result of the February 21, 2016 referendum, which rejected proposed changes to an article of the Constitution to enable Evo Morales for the 2019 elections.

The fragmented and heterogeneous right-wing opposition bloc in its increasingly violent attack on democracy and the institutions of the Plurinational State converges on its open opposition to the continuity of the Process of Change and President Evo Morales.

Two major events, apparently disconnected, have confirmed the scope of its general strategy: the fires affecting the Chiquitania dry forest and, on the other hand, the physical violence unleashed by quasi-paramilitary youth detachments against MAS members in the eastern city of Santa Cruz and the burning of an official campaign headquarters in the subtropical southern part of the Yungas of La Paz.

The calls for the government to decree a national disaster based on the Chiquitanía events and the call for an indefinite strike starting October 10 so that the members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) resign, are just the pretexts to set fire to Bolivian democracy. The principal motive is that Evo Morales is on his way to a new term in office.

The fires in the Chiquitania, which is the transit zone between the Chaco and the Amazon, have yet to be fully controlled, despite the efforts made with our own resources and the support of the international community, which the government has never refused as long as it is channelled through the state and within the framework of the Paris Agreement.

Two factors play against each other when it comes to quenching the fire: on the one hand, the dry soil structure of that region and the strong winds. At the worst moment, approximately 10,000 sources of fire were reduced to less than 1,000 a week ago, but the wind rekindled many of them. But, on the other hand, some hired assassins or militants of the extreme right, acting stealthily under the form of guerrilla column, are responsible for rekindling the fire in those places where it was extinguishing or lowering in intensity, or initiating new sources of fires. Against natural causes, efforts are redoubled with large firefighter planes – of Russian and Chinese origin, as well as the Supertanker contracted by the government – the deployment of more than 7 thousand firefighters, military and volunteers from different backgrounds. The Public Prosecutor’s Office’s actions have been inadequate due to the lack of conclusive information from the intelligence apparatus. What is certain is that in this vast affected area, people know -some as collaborators of the right, others as citizens who support the government- that small groups continue to do their work to cause fires.

The outbreak and spread of fire with high intensity in that region has fallen on the opposition like a ring to the finger. With some skill it has mounted itself on the event and, while its most democratic fractions are complicitly silent in the face of the actions of these incendiary groups, what it does is to deploy environmental “experts” to install the idea that Bolivia has never in its history had such a government as predatory to nature as that of Evo Morales. The efforts to position this matrix of opinion in the urban collective imaginary – very sensitive to environmental issues regardless of their political inclination – start from the political reality that the government of Evo Morales arrived with the paradigmatic proposal of achieving a balance between human beings and nature, but it was – and there enters the ideological and media construction of another reality on the part of right-wing ideologists and operators – the one that adopted the most measures to expand the agricultural frontier and the “controlled burning” at the cost of affecting natural parks and forest areas in general.

The right has an army according to the nature of the combat. For its “green face,” it has “environmental activists,” such as Jhanisse Vaca Daza, a young woman from Santa Cruz who studied in the United States, received training in U.S. institutions where other young people who have an active participation in the destabilization of the governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua were trained. The “activist,” who had direct advice from four people sent by USAID for two weeks to Bolivia, uses the hashtag #SOSBolivia to generate comments from Bolivian opponents and not a few leftist activists in the world.

What is perverse about this discourse – more so through social networks, but also through the media – is that it manipulates the subjectivity of the people in order to assign direct responsibility for the burning of extensive forest areas of Chiquitanía to the government with the sole objective of “handing over” those lands to cocalero peasants and intercultural communities (formerly known as colonists) who, according to this account, want to change the vocation of land use. It has been of little use for Morales to decree an “ecological pause” in that region, which implies the total prohibition of human settlements and/or the undertaking of agricultural activities. The right continues to use the fires in that region to disqualify the indigenous government.

The reactions of hatred and racism provoked by the perverse discourse of the “invasion of Kollas Indians” in Chiquitania have immediately translated into small marches in some cities and into lively assemblies of committee members, particularly the Pro Santa Cruz Committee, famous for having led the attempted coup d’état against Evo Morales in 2008. But the highest expression of opposition energy was translated into the violent mobilization of groups of right-wing youths who, with bats in their hands, proceeded to beat MAS militants last Thursday night, when they were campaigning in some parts of the city of Santa Cruz. More than six people in intensive care and almost a dozen less seriously injured is the balance of the action. The images of today’s conspiracy are the same as those of the destabilization of Morales’ first term in office, when “the Indians” of the MAS were physically and verbally attacked.

The equation protest and violence is the constant. This is the second time that an opposition mobilization ends in high levels of violence. A university march, on December 11, 2018, burned the facilities of the Departmental Electoral Tribunal (TDE) in Santa Cruz and raided the offices of the state telecommunications company ENTEL. In the city of La Paz, the harassment of the headquarters of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) with stones and blunt objects also lasted several hours that same day.

It would be a “bolsonaro” error to think that the right started the fires in Chiquitanía deliberately to oxygenate its discourse of questioning Evo Morales’ nomination for the Oct. 20 general elections, but there is something beyond question: the right – fractions with de facto measures and others discursively – mounted themselves on the environmental disaster and are using the supposed “ecocide” committed by the government of the Process of Change to reposition the flags of illegality and illegitimacy of the presence of the binomial Evo Morales-Álvaro García Linera on the electoral ballot.

What are the objectives of this articulation of the right-wing bloc from the fires in the Amazon and the “defense” of democracy against the dictatorship of the ecocidated Evo Morales?

Before developing these objectives, it is good to point out that since February 21, 2016, the general strategy of the opposition in Bolivia is to “overthrow the government of Evo Morales” by whatever means necessary. The tactics have ranged legal-constitutional tools to de facto measures expressed in acts of violence, including calling for intervention by the United States and international organizations. The statements made by Carlos Mesa and Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga to the Minister-Rapporteur of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Francisco José Eguiguren, when they told him on August 15, 2018: “We understand (that there is) a polarization due to the government’s insistence on not respecting the February 21 referendum, could generate undesirable tensions.

To avoid dispersing the object of our analysis, let us group the objectives of the general strategy into the following:

First, to generate an atmosphere of high intensity social upheaval that tarnishes and delegitimizes the October 20 elections that, if the trend continues, would give Evo Morales a fourth continuous period of government. All polls, including those conducted by outspoken opposition media, show Morales leading the electoral preference and approaching victory in the first round.

Second, it reinforces the idea that elections are held with a Supreme Electoral Tribunal functional to the Morales government and that the only way for the electoral act to be transparent is with the immediate resignation of all TSE members and the appointment of a “council of notables. In the hypothetical event that such a measure were to become viable, the only thing that would precipitate it would be the postponement of the October 20 elections, since the first thing that this “council of notables” would do would be to review and reverse measures taken by the TSE since last October, when it called for the primary elections that were first held in Bolivia on January 27.

The right-wing bloc, by expressing an adverse sentiment against the government on the subject of “hotbeds” -which, as it is pointed out, has been constructed by the media- with the political concept of “lack of civil and political liberties and guarantees”, is attempting to set Bolivian democracy on fire. It is not an exaggeration to consider that, if the “sources of fire” do not radically diminish in the next fifteen days, the request for postponement of the elections on the part of “civil society” organizations in which the right-wing people militate is accepted. It is suggestive enough that the newspaper Pagina Siete, with its well-known anti-government position, should publish an article on Saturday, September 14, in which it states verbatim:

“For the first time, three months after the official convocation was launched and 37 days before the general elections, the possibility of suspending the elections in one way or another has been considered. The violence that took place in two regions of the country, the product of political differences, is the main cause for which officialists and opponents blame each other”.

A measure of this nature, which would postpone the elections for at least six months, would be of ample advantage to the right-wing project: it would open political space to propose a “transitional government” or would place the government in the limbo of illegitimacy, it would allow time to push a single opposition candidacy that confronts Morales after last July’s failure to produce that political outcome with the resignation of the vice presidential candidate by the alliance “Bolivia Dijo No”. The combination of these events would lead the government to greater attrition.

The opposition bloc – made up of right-wing parties, conservative civic committees led by the Pro Santa Cruz Committee, influential media, few union leaders, the Medical Association and other professional associations, and hierarchical sectors of the Church, is placing “all their eggs in one basket” by gambling on the success of the indefinite strike called as of October 10, which involves planting a risky “time bomb” that, in the face of any provoked or spontaneous confrontation with social sectors that are part of the government, will detonate the October 20 elections into a thousand pieces.

And Evo Morales knows what the opposition has in mind. He has called for the social movements and the conscious population to defend democracy from the “coup attempts” of the right. “I take this opportunity to summon those present, listeners from all over Bolivia, the Bolivian people with its professionals, the social movements, we must defend democracy, the elections of October 20 of this year, we must defend social peace,” said the indigenous leader.

A peaceful, mobilizing and firm reaction, far from damaging Morales’ electoral perspective, will benefit him. A percentage of people who distanced themselves from the Process, but who were not trapped in right-wing networks either, and who are among those who are inclined to vote null or white, will return militant – upon seeing the new expressions of racism and hatred – to defend the Process of Change because there is so much at stake.

Translation by Internationalist 360°