Bolivia’s great victory against US imperialism and the immense challenges ahead

Luis Arce and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) achieved a landslide victory in the first round of Bolivia’s Presidential election on Sunday 18 October 2020. This spectacular triumph was the culmination of almost a year of intense struggle, led by Bolivia’s working class and indigenous majority, to reverse the US-backed military coup of November 2019 which overthrew the country’s legitimate and democratically elected President Evo Morales.

In the face of intense racist violence, massacres, political persecution and imprisonment, the people of Bolivia rose up against an illegitimate regime and defeated the combined forces of US imperialism and their lackeys in Bolivia – including the neo-liberal elites, the state security forces and the fascist militias. Against all these odds, it is clear that the MAS won a resounding win in the first round. With 90% of the votes counted, MAS has secured 54.5% of the vote, whilst the neo-liberal, US-backed candidate Carlos Mesa has only received 29.2%.

The struggle to defend this great and crucial victory will be fierce. It’s already started.

As the official count was still underway far right extremist groups gathered in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Sucre to protest against MAS’s overwhelming victory at the ballot box.

The US has cultivated close links with these far right extremists as well as a plethora of other groups, a number of right wing political parties and key actors in the Bolivian state, security apparatus and military. While it has suffered a serious defeat the US will already be plotting how to reverse this triumph of the left. Washington’s goal will be nothing less than to overthrow by every means possible the legitimate and democratic government of Luis Arce.

In addition to the prospect of the permanent aggression of the most powerful force in the world – the US government – and the hostility of an entrenched right wing domestically, Bolivia’s new left government will also confront a number of other immense challenges. Most immediately amongst these is saving lives and protecting public health in the face of the raging coronavirus pandemic which has already claimed the lives of over 8,000 people in Bolivia. The new Bolivian government also faces the issue of defending living standards and rebuilding the economy against the backdrop of a gigantic global economic crisis, which threatens to plunge 150 million people into extreme poverty worldwide over the next year.

To overcome these daunting challenges, the support of left governments in Latin America and the cooperation and friendship of rising economic giant China will be crucial for the Bolivian government as it defends and consolidates its victory. This poses numerous issues the solidarity movement in the West needs to understand clearly.

The US project is to make Bolivia its “backyard” again

MAS’s electoral victory represents a major blow to the US project of dominating Bolivia. The US has a particular interest in re-gaining control of Bolivia’s natural resources, which includes the world’s largest known reserves of lithium – a crucial component in the production of batteries for phones, laptops and electric cars. Under the leadership of the MAS, Bolivia had nationalised its lithium and was investing to create state industries that would process this resource into higher value-added products such as batteries and electric vehicles. Bolivia was entering into a mutually beneficial partnership with China to develop its lithium industry in order to benefit from the investment and expertise the Asian giant could offer. This was intolerable to the US – who wanted to put such resources under the control of US companies such as right-wing billionaire Elon Musk.      

Like the rest of Latin America, the US regards Bolivia as its own “backyard” and any government which seeks to forge an independent path, work with other countries outside of the orbit of US domination and govern in the interests of its people rather than multinational corporations is regarded as an enemy that must be crushed.

Prior to the election of Evo Morales in 2006, Bolivia’s economic affairs were directed by the US. The extent to which the US controlled Bolivia was eloquently expressed in 2005 by the country’s then President, Carlos Mesa (the same Mesa that was defeated in this year’s Presidential election by Luis Arce), who was forced to resign in the wake of a popular uprising against neo-liberalism. In his resignation speech Mesa dismissed the idea that Bolivia’s natural gas could be nationalised as “unviable” because the US and World Bank “have told us so.”

Evo Morales and the MAS proved that nationalising the country’s natural resources was not just “viable” but was the key to developing Bolivia’s economy and liberating the Bolivian people from a life of extreme poverty. Through nationalising Bolivia’s natural resources and using the profits to invest in new state industries, infrastructure and social programmes the MAS succeeded in slashing poverty in half from 48.1% to 24.7% during its 14 years in office.

The financial crash of 2008 and the crash in commodity prices in 2014 hit most countries in Latin America very hard, causing economic crisis and political instability across the region. Bolivia’s robust economic policy, which embraced the dynamic role of state intervention, meant that the country’s economy continued to grow through these turbulent times. The central driver of this economic success was strong state investment with the proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) directed towards investment increased from 14% in 2006 to 21% in 2015. This powered economic growth and aided the poverty reduction programmes. As a result per capita GDP expanded by 46% from 2006 to 2017. In 2018 Bolivia had one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, recording a 4.7% growth rate. 

The US is determined to turn the clock back and reverse these huge economic and social gains. Washington wants to install a government in Bolivia that is willing to impose a brutal neo-liberal programme to privatise Bolivia’s natural resources, end the social programmes and dismantle the country’s state-development projects.     

The enemy never sleeps: the challenge of preventing the next US coup attempt

While immediately the right wing in Bolivia has suffered a defeat, and is on the defensive, there should be no illusions for the solidarity movement –  in the wake of the MAS’s victory US imperialism’s hybrid war on Bolivia will be intensified. The US has a long record of intervening in Latin America to overthrow progressive governments when these are installed, and Bolivia is no exception.

The US role in the failed ‘media luna’ coup attempt in Bolivia of 2008/09 was exposed by WikiLeaks – the US provided funding to opposition groups involved.

The US role in overthrowing Evo Morales in 2019 is also clear. Audio tapes were published just days before Morales was forced to resign by the Bolivian military that implicated the US embassy, US senators and right-wing Bolivian politicians in a coup plot. The Washington-based Organisation of America States (OAS) played a key role in creating the pretext for the coup, confirming once more that the organisation is a tool for US foreign policy. The OAS intervened to de-legitimatise the election of Evo Morales by claiming there was electoral fraud as the ballots were still being counted – a claim that has been thoroughly debunked by US researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Center For Economic Policy Research.

Washington will now be considering its next move to undermine Bolivia’s newly elected government with the aim of eventually removing it. A whole range of tactics, as are being used elsewhere in the region, could be deployed by the US in order to significantly destabilise the situation within Bolivia – from imposing draconian sanctions to sponsoring far right violence.

In addition to the threat of destabilisation there is the on-going danger of a new military coup, as Bolivian journalist and analyst Ollie Vargas has pointed out:

“The next few days will be key for consolidating democracy in Bolivia. The MAS will need to embrace the patriotic elements within the police & military, to ensure the US/Murillo don’t launch a second coup against the majority of Bolivians.”

The threat of a new coup raises the question of how the MAS will contend with those actors in the police and army that are effectively agents for the US and played a role in last year’s coup.

The challenge of defeating the coronavirus pandemic

Bolivia’s new government faces the immediate challenge of saving lives and defeating the coronavirus pandemic.

With over 8,000 deaths, the outgoing coup regime has catastrophically mishandled the pandemic. On a per capita basis, Bolivia has the third highest Covid19 death toll in the world – at the time of writing Bolivia’s has an even higher per capita death rate than Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

The country was poorly prepared to deal with the crisis. One of the first actions of the coup regime was to expel 700 Cuban doctors from the Bolivia which left many of the country’s most vulnerable communities at risk.

Bolivia’s official – and unreliable – data indicates the on-going presence of the virus in the country, which is continuing to claim the lives of an average of 25 people per day. Therefore there is a real danger that a major resurgence of Covid19 could occur.

Bolivia’s new government can turn to other left wing governments within Latin America – Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba – which have succeeded in containing the virus and saving lives for help and advice in how to prevent or tackle any future major outbreak.

China can also play an important role in helping Bolivia fight against coronavirus. Firstly in terms of sharing its expertise on how it succeeded in crushing the virus with a zero covid strategy and also in providing the necessary materials to fight the disease. For example, during the pandemic Venezuela had received 8 shipments of medical supplies from China including 1.9 million rapid tests, over 9.7 million masks, 5 ambulances and 70 ventilators.

The challenge of reducing poverty in a global economic crisis

The new MAS government inherits a dire economic and social situation. The IMF estimates that the Bolivian economy will shrink by 7.9% in 2020. Bolivian commentators believe that poverty has risen so sharply that the country is experiencing the high poverty rates of the early 2000s before Evo Morales took office. Production has collapsed and the entire project of building state-owned industry in Bolivia to exploit and process the country’s huge lithium reserves and produce lithium batteries has been completely paralyzed. The coup government of Jeanine Añez also agreed a loan with the IMF for $327m – Bolivia’s first loan from IMF in 17 years.

Luis Arce announced that the first measure of his government will be to give out anti-hunger bonds to the poor – making clear that its priority was to support the population. He has also indicated that at the same time his government is “going to start rebuilding production, which has also been affected by the measures that {the current government} has taken.”

As Evo Morales’ Economy Minister for 14 years, Luis Arce was one of the architects of Bolivia’s successful development model which nationalised the country’s natural resources, increased state investment to build industries and significantly raised the population’s living standards.

Bolivia’s new President-elect faces now the prospect of rebuilding the economy in even more difficult circumstances than the MAS confronted in 2006 following years of neo-liberal economic stagnation.

There is no prospect for a boom in commodity prices of the kind which Latin America’s left governments took advantage of in the early 2000s. There is also a massive global economic crisis to navigate. According to the IMF the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean are projected to contract by 8.1% in 2020 and to then grow by only 3.6% in 2021.

China is the only major economy in the world projected to grow at all in 2020, by 1.9%, and will account for the majority of world growth in 2021, with a projected growth rate of 8.2%. Meanwhile the US economy is projected to contract by 4.3% in 2020 and then to grow by only 3.1% in 2021.

The question of Bolivia rebuilding its previously close partnership with China on the basis of ‘win-win’ economic development will play a crucial role in the successful rebuilding of the Bolivian economy.

Under Evo Morales’ leadership Bolivia was developing trading links with China on the basis of creating a multipolar world and mutual benefits. From 2000 to 2014, bilateral trade between China and Bolivia grew from $75m to $2.25bn.

One clear example of ‘win-win’ cooperation took place in 2013, when China launched Bolivia’s first satellite into space. Bolivian journalist Ollie Vargas explained the significance of this:

“Bolivia is a small country, it doesn’t have the expertise to launch a rocket into space, so it worked with China to launch the satellite which now provides internet and phone signal to all corners of the country… although China brought the expertise and a lot of the investment, they didn’t seek to take ownership of the final product. That satellite belongs to Bolivia.”

In June 2018 Bolivia signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative. On joining Evo Morales said: “China’s support and aid to Bolivia’s economic and social development never attaches any political conditions.”

Just months before the US-backed coup, in February 2019 it was announced that Bolivia had chosen China’s Xinjiang TBEA Group Co Ltd to hold a 49% stake in a planned joint venture with Bolivia’s state lithium company, YLB. The Chinese firm was to provide the initial investment in a project that’s estimated to cost at least $2.3billion. Bolivia taking forward such a partnership with China will be very important in developing its lithium industry and spurring an economic recovery.

Building international solidarity to defend Bolivia’s victory against US imperialism

The victory of the Movement Towards Socialism in 18 October’s Presidential election is a triumph for the Bolivian people. It is also a testament to the fact that MAS, as political movement, has proven itself to be extremely well organised, deeply rooted in the life of the Bolivian people and capable of waging a heroic struggle against an extremely powerful opponent, US imperialism, and win.

After their huge victory immense challenges confront the Bolivian people: a hostile US administration that is intent on overthrowing their government, a highly organised and US-backed Bolivian right wing opposition, a raging coronavirus pandemic and a deep global economic crisis.

The left internationally must, as an absolute top priority, build solidarity with the people of Bolivia as they fight on to defend their inspiring victory.

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