Bolivian journalist Oliver Vargas takes an in-depth look at the right-wing candidates running to secure the longevity of the U.S.-backed coup in Bolivia.
Elections are looming in Bolivia. Despite closing ranks to force out Evo Morales’ left-indigenous government, the different factions of Bolivia’s pro-coup right have fallen out with each other less than three months into their rule. The crisis boiled over on January 26, when Jeanine Anez, the self-declared ‘interim’ president, declared that she would stand as a candidate, despite pledging not to. Her announcement triggered a rebellion within her own cabinet that she crushed by purging the dissenters.
However, the problem facing the Bolivian right is much larger than Anez. To understand their predicament, one must understand the two factors they all have in common. Firstly, their direct and longstanding ties to the United States, most of them predating the November 10 coup. Secondly, the vast and complex web of corruption that they have all had to pass through to get onto the ballot. This article is the second installment of a two part series covering the coming election in Bolivia. The first installment investigated the candidates taking on Bolivia’s U.S.-backed right-wing government.
The old puppets return
In Bolivia, the tendency to recycle senior figures of the most unpopular governments has become a sort of right-wing political tradition. This election, Carlos Mesa and Jorge Tuto Quiroga will be the torchbearers of that tradition. Both have served as vice president and president during the neoliberal period and both presided over periods of profound crisis that came about as a result of trying to implement policies demanded by the United States.
Quiroga, running under the Libre 21 alliance, governed in the late 1990s and early 2000s under former military dictator Hugo Banzer. A stalwart of the old establishment, Quiroga is most notorious for the repressive violence he exacted against Campesinos in the Chapare region. ‘Plan Dignidad’ was drawn up with the U.S. and was aimed at eradicating the traditional coca crop and breaking the strength of Chapare’s union organization. Quiroga placed Bolivia’s armed forces under the authority of DEA commanders who coordinated an extraordinarily violent ‘war on drugs.’ The first six months of Quiroga’s presidency saw about one death per week, and two injured per day as the ‘war on drugs’ intensified against coca farmers in the Chapare. When he eventually reached an agreement with the coca growers union in 2001, he was castigated by the U.S. embassy. They said that instead of negotiations, “a firm and continuous response would have weakened the political base of Evo Morales even more.” The repressive tactics were resumed shortly after and the conflict was reopened.
Mesa, running under Citizens Community Alliance, was equally servile during his short period in power. Mesa took office just after Quiroga and was elected vice president in 2002. By 2003, months of anti-privatization uprisings had rendered the country ungovernable. Mesa took the presidency by default when his partner Sanchez de Lozada was overthrown and had to flee to Miami by helicopter.
Mesa presents himself as the least authoritarian of the right-wing presidential candidates. Yet, even he denounced the repression of his own government following the ‘Black October’ massacre of protesters in El Alto in 2003. However, his two years in power were a period of paralysis and it became clear that it would be impossible to implement the neoliberal policies the U.S. was demanding without the kind of violent crackdowns his predecessor had enacted.
There’s no clearer example of this than Mesa’s attempt to grant legal immunity to U.S. troops operating in Bolivia (who were mostly coordinating repression in the Chapare region). Mesa tried to enforce an agreement signed eight months earlier with the U.S. that would have ensured U.S. nationals could not be handed over to the International Criminal Court. Many saw the move as a prelude to the arrival of even more U.S. troops and military bases. However, as MAS lawmaker Gustavo Torrico recalled, Evo Morales’ threats of mass protests managed to stop the proposal in its tracks. “Morales, as head of the MAS, asked for a meeting at the Palace (and) we went with Evo Morales, Antonio Peredo, Santos Ramírez, Edmundo Novillo and myself. Evo confronted Carlos Mesa and said: ‘I will not allow you to put military bases here, we’ll paralyze the country, we’ll set the country on fire, the gringos will not arrive,’” Torrico said.
These were the kind of dilemmas Mesa faced daily during his presidency. He didn’t want war on the streets, but how else could he fulfill U.S. demands on issues like privatization and legal immunity? Mesa eventually resigned in 2005. His infamous resignation speech could be characterized as the rant of an exasperated man. Mesa spoke about how Evo Morales’ proposed nationalization of natural gas (which his government had privatized) was ‘impossible’ simply because “the US, the World Bank and Spain have told us so.”
A legacy of servitude
The Anez administration’s ties to the U.S. are openly admitted. Evident in the dramatic speed with which Morales’ progressive foreign policy was torn up. Full relations were re-established with the U.S. and Israel and USAID was brought in to ‘cooperate’ in the elections and other government functions. However, less known are Anez’s hiring choices. One of the first advisors to be brought in to her inner circle was Erick Foronda, who was chief advisor to the U.S. embassy in Bolivia for 25 years prior to taking on the role with Anez.
The cooperation continues as the electoral campaign gets underway. Following the footsteps of many Bolivian rightists, Anez is now contracting the services of CLS Strategies, a U.S. political consulting firm, to provide “strategic communications counsel” during the coming elections. CLS Strategies is the same firm used by the government in Honduras after that country’s coup against Manuel Zelaya.
Most of Bolivia’s right-wing candidates have a proven track record of allowing the U.S. to dictate the most important areas of policy. The U.S., however, doesn’t limit it’s cooperation to those who have governed.
Wikileaks cables show that over $4 million were funneled through USAID to Media Luna groups between 2006 and 2009. The Media Luna movement was a coup attempt led by right-wing groups in the eastern departments (provinces) of the country, particularly in Santa Cruz, which tried to secede from Bolivia so as to protect royalties from natural gas reserves that had just been re-nationalized against the will of the eastern elites. The move unleashed a wave of racial violence against indigenous residents in those areas, as far-right protesters saw them as symbols of the indigenous government they so detested. The most prominent leader of Media Luna was the Comite Civico Pro-Santa Cruz, whose former president, Fernando Camacho, is now one of the leading candidates in the coming election, running on a far-right religious platform representing the landowners who lead the Comite.
How Does One Become a Candidate in Bolivia?
So who are the forces behind each candidate and how did they get on the ballot? ‘Interim’ President Anez is standing with an alliance made up of her own party, the Democratas, the largest party in eastern departments like Santa Cruz and Beni. She’s also running with Sol.Bo, the large patronage network around the Mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla. Sol.Bo originally backed Mesa but withdrew their support after it became apparent that they wouldn’t get the kickbacks and positions they wanted, particularly having Revilla on the ballot as vice president.
Anez is the only candidate with genuine political forces behind her. The other candidates had to get their hands dirty in the black market in order to secure registered status (personeria juridica) with defunct but pre-existing parties. Due to the rushed nature of the elections, there was no time for the bureaucratic process of registering new parties, such as collecting signatures and paperwork. This forced any candidate who wanted to run to register via a pre-existing political party.
This inconvenience was no issue for the MAS, who have always been united in a single party. However, on the right, constantly shifting alliances and defections mean that the only options are a set of old, U.S.-backed parties from the 1980s and 1990s that no longer have active members or parliamentary representation but are still registered with Bolivia’s electoral authorities (TSE). These parties include the MNR, ADN and UCS among others. They have essentially become shell companies, selling their brand rights to aspiring candidates.
Evangelical preacher Chi Hyun Chung exposed this corruption after he placed third in the last election but didn’t make it onto the ballot. Chung reported that these groups were asking for payments of between one million and 1.5 million U.S. Dollars for the right to use their names. He called on electoral authorities to intervene to end the practice.
It was in this murky auction that the other candidates registered themselves. Far-right Santa Cruz leader Fernando Camacho, running under an alliance called Creemos, is actually registered with Bolivia’s election authority with the UCS, the party of a former beer magnate. UCS received 0.4 percent of the vote during the last election.
Former president Quiroga’s alliance is called Libre 21 but is registered with the election authorities as the MNR, the once-powerful party that were his rivals when he last successfully ran for office. MNR is now a defunct organization that received less than one percent of the vote in the October 2019 election.
Mesa registered with the same Comunidad Ciudadana alliance that he cited as his registered political party during his last run but is registered as a candidate with the FRI, a minuscule organization that hasn’t run its own presidential candidates since the late 1970s.
The surprise entry is Norma Pierola, an oddball far-right lawmaker from the Christian Democrat Party registered using her own organization. It isn’t known how much the others paid for the rights to register under the shell companies disguised as political parties.
Life on the Bolivian right is a series of backroom deals. This is why Camacho and Mesa have been so absent from the media in recent weeks, negotiating this byzantine web of corruption requires vast amounts of time and energy.
Divided They Fall
Who will be the one to beat? It’s hard to say which of Washington’s candidates is the most popular. A recent poll commissioned by the conservative Pagina Siete, had Anez and Camacho ranked as leading candidates, though both scored significantly less than the MAS. Mesa managed to unite a significant section of the vote during the October 2019 elections, but the coup saw more radical figures come to the fore.
In Santa Cruz, it’s unlikely that Mesa will get a large percentage once again. Speaking to MintPress News, the president of Santa Cruz’ Comite Civico suggested that the region will likely opt for more radical candidates, saying, “we have to analyze the variables that led to that vote [for Carlos Mesa]… people didn’t vote for Carlos Mesa, people voted for the one that could take out Evo Morales… Carlos Mesa was an instrument, people saw him as an instrument to take out the dictator, the tyrant.”
Whatever their differences, the reality is that they’re scrambling for the votes of the same urban middle class. Conservative analyst Andres Gomez pointed out that they’ll all struggle to make inroads into the social base of the MAS, which is overwhelmingly indigenous and working class.
The divisions within the right and the unity of the MAS would normally bode well for the return of Evo Morales’ party, though this will not be a free or fair election. Anez is already compensating for organizational weakness by tilting the playing field against the MAS. The international community will need to pay close attention to Bolivia’s elections to ensure they aren’t fixed by Washington’s candidates.
Feature photo | Bolivia’s right-wing opposition presidential candidate Carlos Mesa speaks during a press conference in La Paz, Bolivia, Oct. 21, 2019. Jorge Saenz | AP
Oliver Vargas is a British-Bolivian journalist covering the ongoing coup in Bolivia for MintPress News. His writing has appeared in teleSUR, Redfish and The Grayzone among others.