Evo Morales in 2017. Image: Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr

On November 11, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the first Indigenous president in a country with an Indigenous majority, was forced to flee to Mexico after he, his family and party leaders received death threats and attacks — including the burning of his sister’s house. In just a few weeks, the coup leaders managed to take over the reins of the executive branch (including naming a brand new cabinet), consolidate support from the military and police, crush much of the opposition, and pass legislation for new elections that bars Evo Morales from participating. They have also taken over the media, denying millions of Bolivians the opportunity to know what is really happening in their country.

Regardless of the criticisms people may have of Evo Morales — especially his decision to seek a fourth term — it is undeniable that he oversaw a growing economy that decreased poverty and inequality. He also brought relative stability to a country with a history of coups and upheavals. Perhaps most importantly, Morales was a symbol that the country’s Indigenous majority could no longer be ignored.

The de facto government that took over in this well-orchestrated coup has defaced Indigenous symbols and insisted on the supremacy of Christianity and the Bible over Indigenous traditions that the self-declared president, Jeanine Áñez, has characterized as “satanic.” 

Áñez, who was the third highest ranking member of the Bolivian Senate, swore herself in as president after Morales’ resignation, despite not having a necessary quorum in the Legislature to approve her as president. The people in front of her in the line of succession — all of whom belong to Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) party — resigned under duress. One of those is Victor Borda, president of the lower House of Congress, who stepped down after his home was set on fire and his brother was taken hostage.

Upon taking power, Áñez’s government threatened to arrest MAS legislators, accusing them of “subversion and sedition,” despite the fact that this party holds a majority in both chambers of Congress. The de facto government then issued a decree granting immunity to the military in its efforts to reestablish order and stability. This decree was described as a “licence to kill” and “carte blanche” to repress, and was strongly criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The result of this decree has been death, repression and massive violations of human rights, especially against the Indigenous community that has risen up to repudiate what they consider a racist, illegitimate government.

One example of intense repression that I personally witnessed was at the gas plant called Senkata, in the majority-Indigenous city of El Alto. Residents had set up barricades all around the gas plant, stopping tankers from leaving the plant and effectively cutting off La Paz’s main source of gasoline.

Determined to break the blockade, the government sent in helicopters, tanks and heavily armed soldiers on the evening of November 18. The next day, mayhem broke out when the soldiers began firing tear gas at residents, then shooting into the crowd. I arrived just after the shooting. The furious residents took me to local clinics where the wounded were taken. I saw the doctors and nurses desperately trying to save lives, carrying out emergency surgeries in difficult conditions with a shortage of medical equipment. I saw five dead bodies and dozens of people with bullet wounds. Some had just been walking to work when they were struck by bullets. A grieving mother whose son was shot cried out between sobs: “They’re killing us like dogs.” In the end, there were eight confirmed dead. If put in the national context, in less than two weeks, 32 people were killed in protests, more than 700 wounded, and hundreds more rounded up and thrown in jail.

Most Bolivians did not even get the news about the repression because of the effective takeover of the media. The de facto government threatened journalists with sedition should they spread “disinformation” by covering protests. Some were arrested; others fell in line out of fear. The main state-run TV station blamed the violence on the protesters, giving airtime to the new Defense Minister Fernando Lopez who made the absurd claims that soldiers did not fire “a single bullet” and that the deaths were due to clashes among the violent protesters.

It’s little wonder that many Bolivians have no idea what is happening. I interviewed and spoke to dozens of people on both sides of the political divide. Many of those who support the de facto government justified the repression as a way to restore stability. They refused to call Evo Morales’ ouster a coup and claimed that his demise was due to fraud in the October 20 elections.

These claims of fraud, which were prompted by a report by the Organization of American States, have been debunked by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C., and other expert analysts. Despite this, both the Trump administration and the Canadian government quickly sided with Morales’ right-wing opponents declaring the re-election of Bolivia’s president to a fourth term invalid due to voter fraud.

Although no date has yet been set for new elections, on November 24, de facto President Jeanine Áñez signed a new law setting the groundwork for another vote for president and the assembly that should take place within the next few months. Unfortunately, with the control that the right-wing coup leaders have consolidated in record time, and the intimidation and fear felt by opponents, it is hard to see how free and fair elections can take place. The United Nations and independent international observers should monitor the elections, not the biased pro-coup Organization of American States. The international community should continue to speak out against repression, call for Evo Morales to be allowed to return without facing criminal charges, and shine a light on the anti-democratic practices of those who usurped a government that had — for almost 14 years — lifted millions out of poverty and empowered the Indigenous community.

Medea Benjamin, co-director of the peace group CODEPINK, was in Bolivia reporting on the coup.

Image: Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr

Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of Codepink and founding Director of Global Exchange. For over twenty years, Medea has supported human rights and social justice struggles around the world.