Political Changes (or Comebacks) in Bolivia

Bolivian general election of 2020 was more than just about Bolivia itself. It was one of the stories of hope in 2020.

I’ve decided to do a controversial thing here.

I’ve chosen to dedicate an article an an entire podcast episode to what good happened in 2020. I’m picking up a magnifying glass and will be inspecting 2020 carefully.

We saw plenty of positive change last year: from BlackLivesMatter reaching a critical mass to Argentina legalising abortion to the people in Belarus bravely marching against their government.

Another thing that caught my attention was what happened in Bolivia in the fall of 2020. It deserves a blog article, I assured myself.

So what happened in Bolivia?

In short, Evo Morales came back to the country!

(Who’s Evo? The president. Why was he gone? Let me tell you. Why is this important? Please be patient).

In 2019, a presidential election was held in which Evo appeared to have won, but it was hotly questioned by Evo’s rivals, and by the Organisation of American States (OAS). Interestingly, electoral fraud accusations made by the OAS were later severely criticised and are considered baseless and politically motivated by many. Having first suggested to hold another election as a response to fraud accusations, Evo was threatened by the military, chose to minimise the risk of eruption of large-scale violence and decided to go into exile. Violence did erupt: Harvard Law School’s (HLS) International Human Rights Clinic reports persecutions and other human rights violations by the interim government committed right after Evo’s ouster. The violence was mostly directed at Bolivia’s indigenous groups, which Evo himself is part of.

Wanna know the official position of the US took regarding this? In an official statement, Trump said that “Morales’s departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard.”

Those voices did get heard: in October 2020, after months of the interim government’s rule, general elections were held. Evo’s party, MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo) won the parliament and the presidency.

So, after his exile in Argentina, Evo flew back to Bolivia.

And this is where I have to roll up my sleeves and arrogantly pretend that I can squeeze at least 500 years of Bolivian history into a couple of coherent paragraphs. I’ll do that to explain what Evo’s return actually means.

We have to remember that one of the overarching political themes in Bolivia, like other countries in Latin America, is without a doubt exploitation. Genocide, colonialism at its greatest (“You can pay us for the progress we claim to have brought you in natural resources and forced labour!”), Western corporations, questionable leaders, “why is the land ownership concentration so weird?”, and so on.

Let me add: exploitation might be one of the themes, but it’s always accompanied by resistance, luchas, incredible hope, and love. By no means do I want to reduce the demographics who have been historically oppressed into mere objects of that oppression, with no feelings, rights, or agency.

Yet talking about that same oppression, we could see another crushing wave of it in Bolivia just some decades ago. Starting in the late 1960s, Bolivia was part of a network of countries comprising what was called Operation Condor. In short, it was a covert and clandestine transnational operation to share intelligence and engage in terrorism to maintain right-wing military dictatorships and suppress leftist movements in South America.

Like in a horrible nightmare you can’t escape, no-one was safe from state terror: the countries collaborated (hence, a network), making crossing the border insignificant in terms of safety. As The Guardian puts it, this system “enabled governments to send death squads on to each other’s territory to kidnap, murder and torture enemies — real or suspected — among their emigrant and exile communities.”

I’d like to pause here to let us try to at least begin to reckon how truly terrifying this was. J. Patrice McSherry opens her book, Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America, with a story of one of the survivors of this operation. He was tortured in a secret prison and his torturers would call his wife, forcing her to listen to his screams over the phone. One day, she was told he was killed and her heart stopped. Of heartbreak.

(It’s never really “just politics” when we talk about politics, is it)

But the thing about Operation Condor that becomes so important in my (very long, I feel the need to apologise…) analysis is the role the US played in it.

Documents got declassified years after Condor had ended, and, in the words I want to borrow from the same article in The Guardian,

“[i]n a bid to strengthen anti-communist forces, the US pumped money and weapons to armed forces across the region.”

It was the Cold War, remember?

Gross human rights violations — committed by those same forces — that took place during this operation, revealed to have been known to the US officials at the time (remember Henry Kissinger?), remained very much unaddressed.

Why to criticise something that’s serving your doctrine?

But the painfully long point I’m trying to make here is this:

There is a deep history of foreign interventions shaping the political realities of Latin America. Almost twenty years ago now, we had another unsuccessful coup in 2002 in Venezuela, when Hugo Chavez was forced to leave his office but was able to return. And whether you like a certain politician or not, you should technically not be cool with a democratically elected leader being removed forcefully.

Let me reveal this to you:

Evo’s comeback is not about Evo.

It’s about a country in Latin America being able to vote, and for those votes to matter. It’s a simple concept of sovereignty and being in charge of creating a future for yourself (even if you mess it up on the way). And if it sounds idyllic, that’s because it is: it’s been only an ideal in so many countries for so long.

“We did it with votes, not with bullets,” Evo said in his interviews after the 2020 election. Whatever happens in Bolivia in 2021, that in itself is a victory.

Thank you, 2020, for that.

Street art in Valparaíso, Chile, another country where Operation Condor was active

PS. I want to leave you with Calle 13, a musical duo from Puerto Rico, and their poetic musical journey through the history of Latin America. You see the lyrics from this song in my photo above.

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