Six months after the coup, journalist Ollie Vargas says the ‘Bolivian people have been abandoned’

Evo Morales
John McEvoy

On 10 November 2019, sections of the Bolivian military and police launched a successful coup against socialist president Evo Morales. The coup was followed by a proliferation of violence steeped in Christian fundamentalism and Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, was forced to flee. New elections did not follow and the new administration, with the backing of the US government, looks unlikely to relinquish power any time soon.

The Canary spoke with journalist Ollie Vargas, who has been reporting from Bolivia since shortly after the coup. He recently launched Kawsachun News, an English-language news outlet which promises to be the authority on Bolivia.

We’re coming up to six months since the coup against Evo Morales in November 2019. Can you give a brief outline of how and why the coup in Bolivia occurred?

There were different stages to the coup. The Bolivian right realised that they were on course for their fourth electoral defeat and they became desperate.

The first phase was creating destabilisation through waves and waves of fake news. A large number of people were getting their news and information through WhatsApp groups and Facebook meme pages, which were pumping out vast amounts of fake news inciting people to take to the streets against a supposedly socialist dictator. That’s how the idea of electoral fraud was built up before any election even took place.

The next step was the OAS [Organisation of American States] report which alleged that there was electoral fraud in the October election. That has now been debunked, but at the time those who were on the streets were more than happy to use it as evidence to step the campaign up from a street protest to a much more violent, terrorist movement.

That’s when you saw people burning down the houses of senior figures of the MAS [Movement for Socialism party] to pressure them to resign. We then finally saw the police mutiny and the military ordering Evo Morales to step down.

It was quite a coordinated affair starting with destabilisation, stepping up to a more terrorist form of violence which, in turn, provided the fertile ground for a coup.

The Bolivian government was woefully unprepared in that it failed to truly capture the institutions of the state such as the military and the police. This opened the door for the US to be able to funnel money through various political groups and various family interests, which is how the police were bought off with wage rises and bonuses negotiated by the now-Minister of Defence and the family of Fernando Camacho.

On 3 May, Bolivia was supposed to have its first elections since the coup, but they were suspended due to the coronavirus crisis. How has the Bolivian government responded to the coronavirus crisis, and has it used it to concentrate even more power into its hands?

Absolutely. I think the Bolivian government more than any other government in the world has taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to extend its own power and to further persecute leftists and critics.

What we’ve seen is, on one hand, a very poor response in terms of public health. Bolivia is in last place for Covid-19 testing in South America, and health workers are woefully unprepared.

And in Bolivia, people have been abandoned in that rents have not been suspended and there’s been no income support for the vast majority of people. I think that the Bolivian people who have lost their income due to quarantine have been abandoned to a much greater extent than other countries in Latin America.

At the same time, we’ve seen a huge ramping of oppression and persecution. The quarantine has been used to justify a large number of arrests – anyone accused of breaking quarantine can be jailed for up to 10 years. And the quarantine itself has been extremely politicised. Time and again the regime has accused the MAS of inciting people to break the quarantine despite there being no evidence of this.

And now the most important issue is that the regime is using the lock-down and the quarantine to suspend democratic elections indefinitely, and therefore clinging onto power indefinitely. So Bolivia is going to be in the ridiculous position in which many elements of the lock-down will be lifted. However, the regime will maintain the excuse that, due to coronavirus, people can’t go to the polls.

We know that, had there been elections this week, the MAS party would have won with ease. How has the MAS managed to resist the regime and continue operating despite ongoing threats and repression?

The quarantine and lock-down obviously present difficulties for the MAS, in that its strength was in being able to mobilise huge amounts of people to the streets.

The MAS is demanding that the crisis not be taken advantage of by the regime by clinging onto power indefinitely. And the MAS is using its majority in the legislature (the only elected body of government) to force through elections within 3 months – but whether this will be respected by the regime is yet to be seen.

The message of the MAS is that elections and public health are not separate – they have to be done together. Only through having a democratic government can the state respond to people’s needs. The main demand of the MAS at the moment is on the need for democratic elections.

What is the situation like for journalists in Bolivia?

It’s an incredibly difficult situation for journalists in Bolivia. First of all, it should be said that during the 14 years that Morales was in power, the majority of print and TV media opposed his government.

However, throughout that time, there was never a single journalist jailed or persecuted in the way that it is happening now. Since the coup, we’ve seen alternative media outlets either shut down or heavily threatened. Immediately after the coup, 52 community radio stations (operating mostly in rural, indigenous areas) were shut down by the Ministry of Communications. One of the only ones that remained was Radio Kawsachun Coca, the one I’m currently working for.

But attempts have been made to close down this media outlet. Just before the coup, far-right groups burned down the offices of Kawsachun Coca in the city of Cochabamba, but they couldn’t get to the offices here in the Chapare region.

Journalist René Huarachi was filming police repression in El Alto, and he was arrested and beaten. So that’s the fate that awaits a lot of journalists who report critically on the coup – they face threats, repression and harassment. It’s an incredibly difficult situation.

However, the majority of journalists do not face any kind of threats, because the entirety of the print media and the vast majority of TV media now has an editorial line that is supportive of the coup government.

Can you talk about the relationship between the environmental movement in the global North and the coup in Bolivia, and what Bolivia’s environmental policy might look like now as a result of the coup?

Environmentalists in the global north have always rejected the environmental politics of Evo Morales. But it must be said that he has led the way for many years in developing environmental ideas for the Global South, and his key proposal was the idea of ‘climate debt’.

The idea is that industrialised countries of the global north owe debt to the countries they colonised, because those countries in the global north were able to industrialise off the looted resources of the global south and, as a result, they contaminated the world.

I think this is an incredibly important demand, and one that’s been ignored by many environmentalists in the global north. And of course, this tension came to a head just before the coup, when groups like Extinction Rebellion began portraying Evo Morales’ government as anti-environmental.

So a discourse was built up that Morales is anti-environmental and now as a result of the coup the new government has announced post-coronavirus economic plans, and a central plank of that is to introduce the use of GMOs into Bolivian agriculture. That was something banned within the constitution of Morales, and now they say that will become a central component of Bolivian food production.

This is an absolutely anti-environmental government. And I think environmental activists in the global north should reflect on what they contributed to creating.

Why is it important to keep following what’s going on in Bolivia?

Following what’s going on in Bolivia is to understand how the US dominates Latin America and the Global South. As coup attempts rumble on in Venezuela, it’s important to look at the kind of racism, persecution and neoliberalism that has flourished with the victory of the coup in Bolivia. Bolivia under this government should stand as an example of what the US-backed forces in Latin America represent.

But Bolivia also stands as an example of how people can organise. Bolivia still has some of the best organised social movements, so activists around the world can learn from how Bolivia’s social movements are organised, the democratic grass-roots participation that characterises the MAS. For those reasons, people shouldn’t forget about Bolivia.

Featured image via Sebastian Baryli

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