Spending time with the union members of Chapare, who run society in a collective fashion, offers special insights into the resistance to the coup. They succeeded in expelling the police, but now fear a bloodbath in retaliation.
By Ollie Vargas - 24. December 2019
Cochabamba, Bolivia — Known as Bolivia’s Chapare region, the Tropico of Cochabamba is a sanctuary for elected President Evo Morales’ most dedicated base of support.
Since the November 10 coup, it has effectively become a self-governing territory where the military junta is absent.
The police and military were sent in full retreat from this area the coup began and were told they would only be welcomed back if the they “get on their knees and apologize” to the community.
In this 12,000 square kilometer swath of land, hundreds of unions have flourished over the years. I spent several days with the union rank and file, witnessing how they run society in a collective fashion, and how they have organized ferocious resistance to a right-wing coup government that threatens to destroy them.
Despite the resilience on display here, there is also a sense of dread. Union leaders told me that if the state decides to militarize the region, as it has threatened, a bloodbath is practically inevitable. If the violent crackdown arrives, it could unravel a social structure they have been steadily constructing for decades.
Transforming the region
Chapare has always had a high degree of self-governance, owing to the needs of the community. When the neoliberal Bolivian governments of the 1980s closed down a large number of state mines in Potosi and Oruro, many rural workers “relocalized” to this tropical region to grow coca and other crops.
The presence of former mine workers, who were part of the revolutionary struggles of Bolivia’s miners union, infused the indigenous campesino communities with a radical proletarian tradition.
Relocalization was far from a smooth process, however. The US was stepping up its so-called war on drugs at the time, using it as a pretext to intervene militarily in Latin America. The DEA teamed up with the Bolivian military to declare war on the campesinos, and attempt to eradicate coca.
It was during the struggles against the presence of the US that Evo Morales rose to the top of the union structures in Chapare. And in facing down the DEA and the Bolivian military, an extraordinary level of organization was developed.
Today, there are six union federations in the region, and within each federation there are about 30 “centrals.” Within each central there are about 10 unions, each of which has between 100 and 200 members. The total number of unions in Chapare numbers somewhere in the hundreds.
Due to the weak presence of the state, the unions organize most aspects of daily life in the area. They establish plans for infrastructure projects, manage land and social disputes in the community, set up local media outlets, and, of course, organize the campesinos’ political activities.
In 2006, then-President Evo Morales initiated a sweeping land reform effort, bringing large territories into the hands of workers, and freeing union members from exploitative relationships with their former landlords.
The unions won’t give up these victories easily.
Taking on the coup
Since the coup, that union-based resistance of Chapare has taken on the role of policing.
On November 10, as it became clear that the coup had overwhelmed Evo’s elected government, the police preemptively fled the area, escaping to the nearby city of Cochabamba.
Coup officials knew that social organization was so solid in Chapare that they would never be able to contain the resistance. And they were right. After the coup took hold, almost every police station in the region came under attack from the local population.
Israel, a local journalist at a union-run station called Radio Kawsachun Coca, explained, “The people were so enraged, no one could stop them.”
Israel was echoed shortly after by Senobio Carlos, the mayor of Puerto Villaroel. “We never told the police and military to leave; they fled,” Carlos said. “In fact, there was one military base where soldiers hadn’t managed to leave before protesters had blocked off all exits. I personally went there and told them that I would guarantee their safety if they join the community and don’t turn their guns on us.”
Carlos said he was branded a traitor by his own community for attempting to negotiate with the soldiers, who were whimpering for mercy. Since then, the community’s position has hardened. Union leaders now say that the police are entirely unnecessary, and can only return if “they get on their knees and ask for forgiveness.”
With the coup’s security forces expelled from the area, the workers established what they call the union police, under the command of the community. I met them while they were standing guard at a union meeting, and found them without any weapons, other than a few sticks. They were drawn from and fully accountable to the community.
Everyone I spoke to in the Chapare appeared content without the state’s police in the area. One council member, Limbert, from the local town of Ivirgarzama, said, “We’re even safer now without the police. They used to charge truck drivers illegal tolls; they’d ambush people who were walking home at night and steal their phones. Now we don’t have that; anyone can walk around safely in the Tropic.”
Still, a few military bases have remained intact in the region. Inside, local teenagers are performing their military service.
As the coup unfolded, a local journalist named Sabina recounted, the parents of those young men surrounded the military base and pleaded with their children not to side with the coup.
Since then, troops have been active, but agreed to only stay within their base. All other military units have fled.
Is a massacre ahead?
Though the police haven’t been able to re-enter the region, the coup government has tried to punish the residents of Chapare for expelling it. The junta has cut off all services to the public bank, Banco Union, which across most of this region is the only national bank with ATMs.
What’s more, the coup regime’s interior minister, Arturo Murillo, has threatened to deny all of Chapare the right to vote in any upcoming elections – unless its residents allow the police to reenter.
The police loyal to Murillo, whose nickname is El Bolas (meaning “the one with balls,” in reference to his macho posturing and violent attitude), have announced that they are preparing to “enter, jointly with the armed forces, into the Tropic of Cochabamba, in order to establish the rule of law in this area.” They have not yet explained exactly how they would do so, but the only possible way would be by military invasion and occupation.
“The police can’t come back, people won’t accept it,” said Segundina Orellana. When I asked her what could be done to combat a potential invasion, she said that the region would rise up, and hoped that it would push the rest of the country to do so as well.
It is not hard to see why the community won’t countenance the return of the police. On November 15, union members from this region were marching towards the city of Cochabamba, and were shot at by officers, some from helicopters. Nine were killed that day, in what is now known as the Sacaba massacre.
The Bolivian media’s information war intensifies
Chapare is one of the most demonized regions of the country. Mainstream Bolivian media outlets routinely portray its population as a collection of narco-terrorists, pumping out evidence-free claims, like the myth that Colombian militants from FARC are controlling protests.
The reality is entirely the opposite, as the production of coca has actually been reduced under Evo’s rule, while it has skyrocketed in US-allied countries like Peru and Colombia.
Bolivia’s unions themselves play a role in ensuring that production is controlled and destined for traditional use. In fact, most so-called cocaleros (coca farmers) also produce fruits, rice, cheese, and other agricultural products.
Children enjoying an Xmas event in Chapare today.
A reminder that this region is safe, peaceful and unarmed. It certainly isn't lawless just because Bolivia's corrupt police aren't here. The coup govt must end threats of a military attack, aimed at breaking Evo's supporters.
Their community benefited from the flood of public infrastructure projects and investments in public services under Evo Morales. But that is all gone now. Yet they are still here, as determined as ever in their commitment to the elected president’s party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).
While opposition media outlets and Western-backed pro-regime change NGOs claim residents here are acting under obligation from union leaders, the reality is quite the opposite. In fact, the members are usually more radical than their bosses.
I went to numerous union meetings with a federation leader named Julian Cruz, and watched as he was forced by his rank-and-file to explain why he was not a traitor for negotiating a peace deal with the coup regime.
The participatory nature of this movement is remarkable. Julian explained to me how he has to attend every single meeting of every union central within his federation, and that if he doesn’t, union members members will take him out to the jungle and “tie me to a tree for 24 hours” as a punishment for lack of transparency.
Not many unions in the United States or North America as a whole can count on that level of grassroots engagement.
Watching the media’s campaign against the campesinos from Chapare, it feels like the demonization is a prelude to bloodshed.
Media reporting of the Sacaba massacre was instructive, as the national press falsely framed the killing as a case of “crossfire.” Coup supporters point to this one-sided coverage as proof that it was not a slaughter, but rather an armed clash with narco-terrorist cocaleros.
The lack of evidence that the protesters were unarmed, and that not a single police officer died, is of little consequence to a media dead-set on waging an information war.
“The media say we’re armed terrorists, but in reality we haven’t got anything to defend ourselves with if the military does attack,” explained a young campesino named Eleuterio Zurita, who has offered protection for journalists. “The point of an attack would be to break the union organization we’ve got here, so I hope the world can support us and show the truth.”
Charting a path back to power
The self-governing nature of Chapare has arisen out of the practical need for sustenance and self-defense, not a devotion to anarchistic ideology. All the unions here are currently holding emergency meetings, not to discuss the administration of local affairs, but to lay out a strategy about how to confront the coup nationally, and thereby take back state power.
At every meeting I have attended, union members have passed a resolution committing to contributing grassroots donations to the MAS campaign, not to be used here, but instead by MAS chapters in other parts of the country where the party is not as strong.
This is how MAS has thrived since its earliest days. So it would be difficult to imagine the party putting forward a ticket without a representative of this organizing tradition.
The coming days and weeks will determine whether this radical space of resistance will be drowned in blood by the Bolivian junta. If it survives, it will be the base from which the left resurrects its national project.
Ollie Vargas - is a Bolivian journalist and writer. He has contributed to Grayzone, teleSUR, Morning Star, and other media outlets.
The Bolivian Coup: What the Mainstream Media Don’t Tell You
Bolivia’s oligarchy launched an orgy of racist and fascist violence to oust president Morales
By Francisco Dominguez (*) - 13. November 2019
The Comite Ciudadano (Citizens Committee), a right-wing coalition led by Bolivia’s ex-vice-president, Carlos Mesa, and Luis Fernando Camacho, a multimillionaire entrepreneur, leading the extreme right-wing pressure group Comite Civico (Civic Committee) of Santa Cruz, jointly launched a brutal wave of violence in many areas of the country aimed explicitly at ousting democratically elected president Evo Morales.
The violence is carried out by paid, armed thugs whose main target has been public buildings, organizations associated with the government (trade unions, co-operatives, poor communities and neighborhoods suspected of being pro-Morales bastions, community radio stations and such like), individuals linked to the government (ministers, mayors etc), and especially persons of indigenous origin who have endured the brunt of their racism. They have targeted indigenous women the most.
This is a re-enactment of the racist wave of violence launched in 2008, aimed both at ousting democratically elected Morales and the partition of the state into two, seeking to set up a non-indigenous country in the territory’s eastern region, exactly where the rich gas and oil deposits lie.
At the time, US ambassador Phillip Goldberg played a central role in the operation. The US, as with the oil in Venezuela, has not abandoned laying its hands on such riches, with the additional incentive that Bolivia has the largest deposits of lithium in the world.
What prompted this was the electoral defeat Bolivia’s right wing suffered at the national election on October 20 2019. The results gave the victory to Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) with 47.08 per cent, against Carlos Mesa with 36.51 per cent and another candidate who got 8.78 per cent. Additionally, MAS won absolute majorities in both the Congress and Senate. The right-wing opposition refused to recognize the results and, in typical Latin American right-wing fashion, alleged fraud.
Elections in Bolivia are entirely manual. So the right wing seized on the normal delay in Bolivian elections to give the definite results, due to the time it takes for the mainly indigenous, rural vote to be counted and its outcome to be sent to La Paz for the vote aggregation by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), as evidence of foul play.
The right wing launched an intoxicating media campaign (with full support of the world corporate media) that fraud had been committed.
Then the coup offensive began in earnest and by October 22, right-wing thugs went on the rampage and, among other barbarities, set fire to three electoral offices across Bolivia claiming “vote rigging.”
Their violence massively intensified when the TSE announced Morales’s victory on the constitutional principle that if any presidential candidate obtains over 40 per cent and at least 10 points above the runner-up there is no need for a second round.
In order to defuse the tense situation Morales asked the TSE to invite the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct an audit on the election. Mesa, Camacho and their followers rejected this outright, and instead demanded new elections and the resignation of Morales, whilst continuing to egg on the racist thugs to conduct a nationwide witch-hunt against MAS supporters.
Social media has been full of horrible images of racist violence against indigenous women and men, such as the case of the MAS Mayor of Vinto, in Cochabamba, Patricia Arce, who was detained by thugs who shaved her hair, doused her with red paint (the color of the right wing in Bolivia), forced her to walk barefoot through the city, kneel down by and ask for forgiveness for supporting Morales’s government.
She, bravely, refused to apologize, stood her ground and was eventually rescued by law and order forces. In the meantime, other armed racist thugs set the Vinto Town Hall on fire.
Similarly, the Town Hall of Oruro was also set on fire by opposition thugs, so was the house of Victor Hugo Vasquez, Oruro governor, and the same fate met the house of Esteban Urquizo, MAS governor of Sucre in Chuquisaca.
Additionally, Victor Borda, president of Bolivia’s Congress, resigned his post and even his position as an MP because armed oppositionists in the city of Potosi kidnapped his brother.
He resigned to preserve his brother’s life and to contribute to the country’s peace. This is a technique that has been used against other prominent members of MAS, hence a number of resignations, presented as a crisis inside of MAS. Even Bolivia’s right-wing media are reporting this method.
In another racist outrage, the house of Esther Morales Ayma, Evo Morales’s sister, in the city of Oruro, was also set on fire.
Right-wing mobs violently occupied the premises of Bolivia TV and Nueva Patria Radio, both pro-government media, where they forcibly expelled all the workers. Not a whisper from the corporate media about this blatant attack on freedom of the press.
In another act of aggression, right-wing demonstrators took Jose Aramayo, director of the Peasant Confederation’s radio station, hostage after occupying the Confederation premises. He was brutalized and tied to a tree in the street.
The wave of violence is almost identical to the US-led coup attempts and extreme right-wing violence unleashed in Venezuela in 2014 and 2017 — and in Nicaragua in 2018.
What made it easier for the thugs to operate freely and with impunity is that important sections of the police force, in what appears to be a coordinated action, raised a number of economic demands (equalization of salaries to the armed forces’ level), retreated to their barracks, and left the civilian population at the mercy of racist thugs going on the rampage. Communities and Morales supporters have organized their own defense, thus increasing the tension.
Most of the worst outrages have been carefully omitted by the world’s corporate media who are presenting the crisis as a rebellion against Morales’s government for the defense of democracy, a far cry from the reality on the ground.
The government has correctly characterized it as a coup attempt led by the country’s right wing with racist and fascist thugs perpetrating wanton violence with the sole aim of ousting Morales.
On November 10 Morales called for fresh elections with a totally renewed TSE aimed at bringing an end to the racist violence, and called the opposition to a dialogue.
However, Carlos Mesa in a public statement said that both Morales and his vice-president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, cannot continue in their positions and must resign — nor can they be candidates in any fresh election.
He also encouraged the opposition to continue and intensify the pressure in the streets that has already inflicted so much pain — primarily on the indigenous majority — and has brought the nation to the verge of a civil war.
This was the real game plan. Not since 2008 has Bolivian democracy been so much under threat. Then the army’s commander-in-chief called on Morales to resign. Now Morales and vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera have gone on TV and tendered their resignations, seeking to bring about peace. The coup has been consummated.
We call upon the British labour movement to condemn the right-wing coup and support democracy in Bolivia and Morales’s call for fresh elections as a democratic and peaceful means to resolve the crisis the coup has thrown the country into. No more Pinochets in Latin America!
Francisco Dominguez, a former refugee from Chile in the UK, is Head of the Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies at Middlesex University, London, United Kingdom.