Bolivia: Fascism Seizes Power

By James Petras

Bolivian fascists have seized power in five of the richest states in Bolivia, forcefully ousting all national officials, murdering, injuring and assaulting leaders, activists and voters who have backed the national government – with total impunity. Ever since Evo Morales was elected President over 33 months ago, the Bolivian far-right has taken advantage of every concession, compromise and conciliatory gesture by the Morales regime to expand their political power, block even the mildest social reforms and paralyze the functioning of the government, through legal maneuvers and gangs of violent street thugs. 
While the Bolivian government has used state repression against peasant squatters and striking miners, it remained a passive, impotent spectator to the right-wing seizure of the Constitutional Assembly, the major airfields in Santa Cruz (forcing the President to flee back to his palace), suspending all public transportation, federal tax collection and public investment and projects. Worse still, paramilitary fascist gangs have repeatedly insulted, beaten, stripped and paraded ethnic Indian peasant supporters of President Morales through the main streets and plazas of the capital cities of the provinces they control. 
Despite winning nearly 70% of the national vote in the recall election of August 10, 2008, Morales has not taken a single measure to counter the fascist seizure of regional power – continuing to plead for dialogue and compromise, as the far right gathers strength and prepares to engage in violent civil warfare against the poor and indigenous Bolivians. The Bolivian government expelled the US Ambassador, Phillip Goldberg, only after the US Embassy actively backed the far right’s regional power grab after almost 3 years of open financing and public collaboration with the secessionists. Since the Morales regime did not break relations with Washington, it is likely that a new Ambassadorial appointee will soon arrive to continue Goldberg’s active plotting with the far right. 
The contrast between the ignominious passivity of the President and the aggressive violent political putsch of the fascist right is striking. The centerpiece of the violent uprising and the successful seizure of fascist power is located in five regional departments: Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni, Tarija and Chuquisaca, which are grouped in a regional mass organization, the National Democratic Council (CONALDE). This includes local prefects, mayors, business leaders and heads of landowner organizations backed by gangs of armed right-wing street thugs in a variety of organizations, the most important being the Cruceño Youth Union, which specializes in degrading, beating and even killing unarmed Indian supporters of Morales.

Prelude to the Civil War and Seizure of Power
The civil war and the rightist seizure of power in the five departments follows a sequence of events resulting in a gradual recovery of political and social power and the subsequent launching of a multiplicity of offensive moves from within the governmental institutions and increasingly through extra-parliamentary direct action. This has resulted in an escalation from sporadic assaults to systematic violence against individuals, organizations, public institutions and strategic economic resources.  In this most recent phase, the opposition has shed its ‘legalistic’ institutional cover and embraced the violent seizure of state institutions and openly declared their secession from the central government, challenging the authority of the government to govern and to exercise its legal monopoly on police power. 

From Popular Power to Neo-Fascist Seizure of Power

1. The starting point of the secessionist-neo-fascist uprising begin in 2005 when, to all intents and purposes, a mass worker-peasant-Indian-miner uprising overthrew the incumbent neo-liberal regime and dominated the streets, presenting all the ingredients for a new revolutionary government. 

2. Under the leadership of Evo Morales and the former NGO organizer, Garcia Linera and their electoral party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), the mass movement was turned from the streets, autonomous activity and social revolution toward electoral politics. Evo Morales was elected President in December 2005 and proceded to sign political pacts with the right-wing parties to share institutional power in pursuit of a centrist political-economic program. This involved joint ventures with all mineral-extracting multinational corporations (excluding expropriations and nationalization) minimalist token land reform programs (never implemented) and tight fiscal policies (excluding income redistribution and limiting wage and salary increases to the rate of inflation).

3. By the middle of 2006, the far Right had recovered from its electoral defeat and through its presence in the newly elected Constitutional Assembly effectively maneuvered to block the passage of the new Constitution. The government focused exclusively on its political reform agenda, consolidated its joint ventures with all the major gas and oil multinationals, renewed unfavorable gas contracts with Brazil (paying Bolivia well below world market prices) and demobilized the mass movements through the MAS party’s control over urban and rural leaders (with the exception of the miners).

4. Beginning in late 2006 and increasingly throughout 2007, the neo-fascist right relied on its extra-parliamentary shock troops to assault pro-government representatives in the Constitutional Assembly, to organize road blockages and to assert their independence (‘autonomy’) from the national government. The Bolivian government rejected any resort to popular mobilization demanded by the more radicalized sectors of the miners in Oruro and Potosi.  Instead it retreated in the face of the institutional pressure of the neo-fascist right, offering concessions on the write-up of the Constitution.  Morales made a series of strategic concessions on the size of land-holdings exempt from land reform, ceding judicial and fiscal powers to the fascist regional rulers and conceded control of the roads, highways and plazas to gangs of well armed neo-fascists.

5. Throughout 2008, the neo-fascist right continued its ‘march through the institutions’ consolidating its control over local and regional government and claims over revenues from strategic economic sectors – all of which are located in the contested regions. By the middle of 2008, the right openly asserted their secessionist claims and proceeded to create parallel police, custom, fiscal and other agencies of government. The secessionist regime gave license to the business, landlord and urban middle class elite. Through their leadership of the self-styled ‘civic organizations’ and their armed enforcers, they proceeded to intimidate and assault thousands of government supporters, peasants, Indian activists, officials and pro-government business owners, street venders, school teachers, health workers and other public employees. The neo-fascist strategy for seizing state power was based on accumulating forces through public demonstrations of power, massive meetings, and lockouts to shut down urban businesses. Any supporters of the national government who did not abide by their strike calls suffered cruel public punishment including beatings and the public humiliation of Indian and peasant Morales supporters in the urban plazas where they were stripped and whipped to the jeers of mostly white, European crowds.

From Protest to Seizure of Power
Having experienced only repeated anemic and inconsequential protests from the Morales-Garcia regime, in August 2008 the neo-fascists launched a full-scale blitz, giving free rein and financial and political backing to a large-scale assault on all major federal installations and agencies and trade union and peasant association offices in the five departments which they controlled. They seized control of the airfields denying landing rights to any government or government-related official, including President Morales and Vice President Garcia and any visiting dignitaries.
The trigger event for the launch of the neo-fascist ‘civil war’ from the top and the violent seizure of power was the electoral victory of Morales-Garcia in the August 8 referendum – where Morales got 67% of the national vote. The result made it clear that the right could not return to national power via elections when their only electoral majority was to be found in the departments they ruled. But even in the 5 right-wing controlled departments, Morales received approximately 40% of the vote, a strong minority in the cities and a majority in many rural areas among the peasantry.
The capitalist class, as elsewhere throughout history, when faced with even some moderate property reforms, but especially in the face of a cowardly, retreating and conciliatory regime, has discarded constitutional methods of opposition. They attached themselves to the neo-fascist local officials, ‘civic’ leaders and even the violent gangs of wealthy youth in Santa Cruz. Morales refused to order the police and military to defend public buildings in the face of arsonist and violent assaults, which destroyed public utilities, telecommunications, customs, accounting, land survey offices, official files and state records.  On the contrary, Morales forced them to withdraw. 
In Pando and Tarifa the oil and gas pipelines were blown up, causing extensive damage and costing millions of dollars in lost state revenues.  Finally on September 11, 2008 over a hundred pro-Morales peasants were killed or wounded in Pando in an ambush organized by armed vigilantes supported by the department prefect Leopoldo Fernandez and his followers in the ‘civic’ organizations. 

The systematic destruction of all signs and symbols of Federal government authority and the killing and intimidation of peasant-worker supporters of Morales ushered in the final stage of this 3-year process of secession, ethnic-racial repression and the imposition of a new fascist political order. 

While the neo-fascist-led civil war proceeded without national government opposition throughout the 5 provinces, Morales’ ministers adopted bizarre postures:  Garcia-Linera rationalized the regime’s impotence by dismissing the seizure of power by the neo-fascist apparatus of the 5 departments as ‘acts of vandals by a gang of 500 thugs’. As Bolivia burned, the Interior Minister Alfredo Rada and the ‘Defense’ Minister Walker San Miguel vainly tried to minimize the illegal neo-fascist takeover of almost half of the country with 80% of the national income by reducing the impending civil war to acts of ‘violent delinquent vandalism in different regions of the east and south of the country’.

On September 12, 2008, Morales apparently oblivious to the massive and sustained assault and takeover actually convoked an meeting with the neo-fascist prefects for a ‘dialogue without any pre-conditions’.  In other words, Morales absolved them of the massacre and brutalization of over a hundred peasants and ignored the economic sabotage, which accompanied their seizure and destruction of oil, gas and other essential revenue-producing sectors.  Needless to say the neo-fascists met with Morales without conceding a single issue.  In fact the only reason they met at all is because Morales was finally forced to declare a ’state of siege’ in Pando – subsequent to the killing of 30 peasants by armed vigilantes under the control of Pando’s Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez.

The troops had to clear the airfield of right-wing thugs who had previously prevented the landing of a government transport plane.  The other 4 departments under neo-fascists control were not affected by the declaration of a state of siege.  In Pando, with the military presence now guarding public buildings and oil and gas installations, the government finally decided  to arrest the right-wing prefect for his role in the massacres.

A Turn Toward Good Government?

President Morales finally ordered the US Ambassador Phillip Goldberg to leave the country after 2 years of direct intervention in the planning, financing and backing of the organized neo-fascist class warfare and seizure of regional power. Over $125 million in AID funds financed almost exclusively the neo-fascist ‘civic’ organizations and through them the armed racial vigilante ‘Santa Cruz Union of Youth’. Morales’ long-awaited declaration of a state of siege only came about under pressure of his restless supporters among the peasant and urban mass movements who began to organize and arm themselves independently of the impotent federal government. Morales also responded to pressure and from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and other countries to end the violence.  Brazil and Argentina were affected by the disruption of vital natural gas shipments from Bolivia.  Even constitutional right-wing regimes, like Bachelet of Chile and Alain Garcia of Peru, backed Morales and indirectly pressured him to act for fear of the precedent of a successful violent right-wing secessionist seizure of regional power might set for their own countries.

The state of siege and the expulsion of the US Ambassador can be seen as much-delayed positive moves to reassert Bolivian sovereignty and to defend the constitutional order.  But what next? 
The neo-fascists have seized regional governmental power. They still control 80% of Bolivia’s key economic resources. The majority of the population who live under rightist rule are without the protection of the central government. Only a few of the oil and natural gas pipelines have been temporarily secured by federal troops. Morales has relied on the military to defend his regime, sidelining, marginalizing and demobilizing the emerging popular mass self-defense movements. The reliability of the Bolivian Army is not guaranteed. By becoming key to the defense of the Morales regime against the neo-fascist right, the armed forces can assume broader powers, as arbiters of the future of the country. Morales is relatively safe, holed up in the Andes; but his followers in the 5 departments in the east continue to face the repressive rule of neo-fascists and their organized vigilante gangs. Equally important, Morales, faced with violent resistance from the far right, shows every intention of making new concessions on revenue and power sharing with the ruling elite. He is open to making even greater concessions to the one hundred big landowners, media moguls, bankers and agro-exporters who are pushing for secession. 

Repeatedly, over the past 3 years, the Indians, peasants, miners, urban slum-dwellers and public employees have organized and fought for land reform, worker-controlled nationalization of the mines and oil fields and decent salaries and wages.  What they have gotten from Morales is a government of fiscal austerity, economic agreements with foreign extractive multinational corporations and huge untouchable agribusiness complexes.  Despite having a political mandate to rule, Morales has made a succession of failed efforts to conciliate with the irreconcilable economic and regional elites.  If there is one lesson that Morales can learn from the peasants who have been degraded and horsewhipped in the streets of Santa Cruz, the trade unionists who have been burned out of their headquarters and homes in Pando and the street vendors who have been driven from the markets in Tarija, is that you cannot ‘make deals’ with fascists. You don’t defeat fascism through elections and concessions to their big property-owning paymasters.

-James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). His latest books are The Power of Israel in the United States (Clarity Press, 2006) and Rulers and Ruled in the US Empire: Bankers, Zionists, Militants (Clarity Press, 2007). He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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