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Bolivia Shows us What is Possible

Bolivia’s rapid social progress under a left-wing government and ability to suffer a right-wing coup then overcome it through mass mobilisation is a source of hope and optimism for the international left.

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Supporters of MAS defy right-wing ‘interim’ coup leader Jeanine Anez in La Paz, November 15 2019,

The politics of the post-cold war period were originally dominated by the famous claim of Francis Fukuyama that we had reached “the end of history” — neoliberalism was now the only game in town and in the words of our own champion of Chicago school economics, there was “no alternative” to letting the market run riot.

All of us who believe in prioritising the future of people and planet ahead of private profit owe a huge debt of thanks to left forces in Latin America for providing the first major challenge to this doctrine.

In addition to the remarkable survival of the Cuban revolution, the turn of the century saw what became known as the “pink tide” — the election of numerous governments across the region which shared a common commitment to addressing the needs of the majority and ending the days of being treated as the “back yard” of the US.

The importance of Bolivia’s role in this process should never be understated.

Coming off the back of a mass struggle against US-backed attempts to destroy the country’s cocoa plants, the election of Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate Evo Morales as president in 2006 represented a radical new direction.

The days of economic policy being set by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were brought to a swift end, with government programmes helping reduce poverty and extreme poverty by 25 per cent and 43 per cent respectively.

A new free healthcare system was introduced, praised by the World Health Organisation as an “important model for the world.”

Constitutional changes enshrined the rights of Bolivia’s indigenous communities, as well as acknowledging the state’s obligation to ensure access to housing, education and food for all citizens (with Unesco declaring illiteracy eradicated in 2009).

On the global stage, Morales called for the world’s wealthiest countries to divert military spending towards serious measures to tackle climate change, denounced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and helped bring about increased regional co-operation through bodies such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba).

Predictably, these policies meant the government made powerful enemies at home and abroad.

Within two years a recall referendum was held, in which Morales secured over 67 per cent of the vote.

Right-wing groups responded to this with a programme of destabilisation intended to remove the government, culminating in a massacre in which 12 indigenous supporters of MAS were killed.

It was later revealed that the US government provided $4.5 million (£3.3m) to those at the heart of this attempted coup.

Attempts to undermine the MAS administration never ended: Morales was notably even forced to land in Austria in 2013 when France, Italy and Spain denied a presidential flight access to their airspace after he had indicated a willingness to offer asylum to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

After his re-election six years later, the US-dominated Organisation of American States (OAS) alleged fraud amid vicious protests from right-wing opposition groups — a report from Washington-based think tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, subsequently found that the OAS presented “no evidence, no statistics, numbers, or facts of any kind” to support their claims.

Threats of violence from sections of the Bolivian military prompted Morales to resign. What followed was an “interim government” which served as an example of the reactionary, brutal reality of “regime change” in Latin America.

Within months of coming to power, the coup administration granted immunity to members of the security forces responsible for the deaths of 19 protesters who had been rallying in support of their elected president.

Over 200 Cuban doctors were kicked out of the country, just months before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and ministers eagerly embarked on privatisations.

Despite initially claiming to be focused on facilitating new elections, they were committed to overseeing a destruction of the legacy of the previous 13 years.

With this offensive waged against them and their longstanding figurehead forced not only out of office but into exile, MAS was operating in immensely difficult circumstances — but provided courageous and strategically astute leadership.

Working with trade unions, social movements and indigenous groups, the party was able to help build mass resistance to the unelected government.

Despite several attempts to further delay them (and block any MAS candidate from standing), these mobilisations ultimately forced new presidential elections.

Support for the coup regime was so low that the incumbent Jeanine Anez withdrew, urging a right-wing alliance in support of former president Carlos Mesa.

But once again, ordinary Bolivians made themselves heard and a year ago this month MAS’s Luis Arce was elected with over 55 per cent of the vote in the first round.

Since gaining office he has sought to restore and build on the gains made when the party was previously in power: launching a bold wealth tax and financial support to over four million citizens to help eliminate hunger.

The heroism and resilience of this popular movement has inspired progressives around the world.

In what is undoubtedly a difficult period for the left here in Britain, it’s important we avoid slipping into defeatism and keep in mind what socialists have been able to achieve in the face of intense adversity.

We should all support the work of organisations like Friends of Bolivia in telling the truth about social progress and building international solidarity.