The mass movement that was central to the defeat of Bolivia’s right-wing coup regime

MAS supporters in Bolivia

Phoenix Media Co-op asked Ollie Vargas of Bolivia’s union-owned Kawsachun News about the lessons that Bolivians and non-Bolivians can learn from the country’s defeat of the coup regime that ruled the country between 2019 and 2020. He spoke in particular about the importance of mass political education and the key role the main “coalition of social movements” played.

In October 2020, after months of resistance from supporters of the overthrown Movement towards Socialism (MAS), the party’s candidate Luis Arce resoundingly won elections to become president. People had managed to defeat the coup regime. And Vargas explained two key factors behind this victory.

1) “The MAS is not structured as a traditional political party”

The most important factor is the structure of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) as a political organisation. The MAS is not structured as a traditional political party in which one joins as an individual and in which there are leaders who run things. If that were the case, then the MAS would have been wiped when all of its leaders were persecuted, jailed, killed after the coup.

Evo Morales, his most senior ministers, [and] many senior party and union leaders were exiled or jailed after the coup. But the MAS wasn’t wiped out because the structure of the MAS is as a coalition of social movements. So the country’s principal indigenous organisations and workers’ unions are affiliated formally to the MAS in an organisation called Pacto de Unidad.

And that is the only way that one can be part of the MAS. One can’t join the MAS as an individual. One is part of the MAS automatically through your membership of your local union. So what that means is that the MAS is present physically in every region of the country – every city, every town, every rural village. Where people are part of unions, people are automatically part of the MAS.

So even if you persecute the leaders, all of that structure remains. And the coup regime, of course, could not wipe out all of that – you’d have to imprison half the country, millions of people who are members of their local unions, whether that be urban or rural. So that was the organisational strength of the MAS on the ground. It gave it a basis on which to regroup, to be able to face down the coup.

2) ‘Debt and economic collapse’ under the neoliberal coup regime

I think the second most important factor is the way in which the Bolivian economy completely collapsed under [Jeanine] Añez. Añez’s economic policy was to close down Bolivia’s state industries in manufacturing, in transport and so on, as part of a [neoliberal] plan to roll out the free market.

Most of Bolivia’s industries that generated revenue, generated profits that went to the government that the government could then use for poverty reduction and infrastructure spending etc, suddenly disappeared because of Añez’s free-market reforms. The economy collapsed, unemployment tripled, and that was before the pandemic.

When the pandemic hit, Añez had a policy of total lockdown without any income support for the people who had lost their incomes. So that created an even more dramatic economic collapse. And by the end of her rule, she had an approval rating of about 7% percent – because even those on the right who had supported the coup could see that the country was collapsing, that the country’s economy was collapsing.

The country was indebted for the first time in a very long time with the IMF. It wasn’t able to generate the revenues through the state industries that it used to do. It was a desperate situation. And that rejection of what was going on was something that fed into the vote of the MAS.

Vargas also spoke about what the left elsewhere in the world can learn from how the MAS resisted the coup.

The massive importance of political education

The second organisational strength [of the MAS] was the fact that there was ideological leadership throughout the time under the coup regime. So even though Evo Morales was exiled from Bolivia – … he was in Argentina for most of last year – … he was still able to provide political leadership and advice to the social movements on the ground.

And that leadership and advice was based on his own history as a union leader facing down authoritarian regimes as he did in the 90s when he was the leader of the coca growers’ union, when he fought USAID, when he fought the DEA and their military bases in Cochabamba. So all of that wealth of experience gave the Bolivian people a historical lesson with which to face down the current coup regime.

So I think that experience obviously can’t be transplanted into every left party of every country. But what is important is to have that ideological component and to have a sense of history and where you as a movement and as a country have been and where you plan to go. Having that knowledge gives you automatically a guide with which to respond to situations as they emerge. Not doing enough work in terms of political education is what I think disintegrates left-wing movements that can ride high and then fall.

Bolivia is a country in which all of the unions have political schools, formation schools which the young union members have to attend – and they are taught socialism, Marxism-Leninism. They’re taught about the history of Bolivia, the issue of natural resources and colonialism. And all of that gives ordinary people a grounding – an ideological weapon, with which to confront extraordinarily difficult situations. So that was incredibly important.

Main article image via Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid