Bolivia’s Repeated History

A Bolivian woman holds the Bolivian flag and cries in protest. Photo courtesy CommonDreams.org.

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

This quote, attributed to Mark Twain, holds as much weight in the 21st century as it ever has. Today, American capitalist interests in Latin America continue to triumph over democracy as they did during the Cold War, in ways that at the least rhyme. No country illustrates this more than Bolivia.

In November 1964, the Bolivian president, Victor Paz Estenssoro, was overthrown in a military coup led by his vice-president, General René Barrientos. For several years prior to this, American money and equipment had helped rebuild the largely dismantled Bolivian military and more than 1,000 Bolivian officers had been trained at the U.S.-run School of Americas, in the Panama Canal Zone.

The U.S. relationship with Paz Estenssoro had been deteriorating for some time. He had voted against expelling Cuba from the Organization of American States (OAS), while also making economic connections to communist countries such as Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia. Also on U.S. radar was Paz Estenssoro’s inability to suppress radical tin miners who had been gaining economic and political influence through militant organization. The U.S. at this point was the largest purchaser of tin. Barrientos’ coup, a violent repression of organized labor took place. The miners had their wages slashed in half and all organized labor was forced to follow strict governmental guidelines or be forcibly dismantled. Leaders of the tin miners were forced into exile while the army raided labor camps, killing hundreds of miners. All this was funded by the CIA, who paid right-wing parties and politicians, including Barrientos personally, hundreds of thousands of dollars while encouraging American companies such as Gulf Oil to do the same.

Fast forward to the 21st century. In 2006, Evo Morales became the first indigenous leader in Bolivia, breaking the glass ceiling of an apartheidic order that had, until then, controlled the government of Bolivia and most of its wealth. Over the course of his tenure, Morales cut extreme poverty in Bolivia by more than half, from 33% to 15%. He also put climate change on the forefront of issues he addressed, hosting a World People’s Conference on Climate Change in 2010.

On October 20, of this year, Morales won an election criticized on what has dubiously been identified as electoral irregularities—irregularies that disappear with the introduction of context. The Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares (TREP) is a system of providing a quick count for the media while votes are counted for the final tally. This preliminary TREP count as it was reported, found that while Morales was the clear front runner at 83.85% of the vote, he was not winning by the ten points needed to avoid a runoff. For unclear reasons, the TREP count was then halted. After pressure from the OAS as well as Morales’ opposition, the TREP count restarted, reporting that Morales did, in fact, have a ten-point lead since its count now included ballots from more rural and indigenous areas. The final physical count found that Morales won by ten points—no runoff required. On October 21, the OAS pointed out the discrepancy between the two TREP counts, and accusations of fraud began.

Between October 20 and November 10, supporters of the opposition took to the streets. Members of Morales’ party had their homes burned, Morales’ home was raided by protestors, and journalists were assaulted. On November 10, the OAS issued a preliminary audit echoing its earlier criticism about the discrepancy in the TREP counts. Morales then agreed to new elections, which he would have been entitled to even if the TREP count had been legitimate. But that same day, the military demanded he step down. Likely fearing for his life, Morales capitulated, cutting short his third term, which would have ended in January.
Though this military coup isn’t a direct repetition of the U.S.-organized overthrow of Paz in 1964, it certainly rhymes with that affair. The OAS was established during the Cold War to unite right-wing countries against communism and almost 60% of its money comes from the U.S. Can it be an impartial actor?

Donald Trump called the coup against Morales a “significant moment for democracy,” and American support for the coup may have been more than rhetorical. Bolivia’s military still has deep ties to the United States. Commander of Bolivia’s armed forces who spearheaded the coup, Williams Kaliman, served as the military attaché of Bolivia’s embassy in D.C.

According to Professor Jeb Sprague of UC Riverside, “Kaliman sat at the top of a military and police command structure that has been substantially cultivated by… the military training school in Fort Venning, Georgia known in the past as the School of the Americas… At least six of the key coup plotters are alumni of the infamous School of the Americas.”

Terror reminiscent of Cold War-era right-wing military regimes has already manifested. Supporters of Morales protesting the coup in the streets have been fired upon by police, killing eight. One day after Morales was ousted, opposition member Senator Jeanine Anez declared herself interim president and marched to government headquarters declaring, “The Bible has returned to the government palace,” repudiating Evo Morales’ non-Christian, indigenous identity. In the streets opposition protesters burn Indiginous flags. The message is clear; the indigenous majority’s time in power is over and the capitalist order has been restored.

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