The right-wing coup in Bolivia should rouse any decent person to fury. It’s the brutality of it: the open rule of the army and the police; the feral cops going door-to-door in the poor neighbourhoods, bashing and terrorising the impoverished Indian supporters of the ousted President Evo Morales. It’s the way the coup’s leaders combine superstitious fanaticism with sneering elitism: those same brutal cops gleefully cutting off the Wiphala Indigenous flag from their uniform to show the new regime’s hatred for the Indian poor, getting on their knees to pray publicly in the streets between their punitive incursions into the slums. The self-declared new “President” of Bolivia is on the record expressing her desire to banish Indians and their “Satanic” religious beliefs from the cities. Democracy’s gone in Bolivia for now, and the ultra-violent cops and soldiers rule once more, protected by the mystical aura of colonial Christianity–the good old days are back.
And it’s the familiarity of it all. Isn’t it a cliché? Once again, the leader of a Latin American country has come to power on the promise that he’d redistribute wealth and power to the poor, and once again he’s been overthrown by the army and the police. By historical standards, Morales is lucky he made it into exile alive. Time will tell: when Juan José Torres was overthrown by the military in 1971, he fled Bolivia for Argentina, where he was assassinated by a death squad five years later.
When it comes to democratic rights, the people of Latin America get only what they fight for – and they have to fight all over again, almost every generation. For most of the second half of the 20th century, the continent was awash with right-wing military dictatorships. Their mission was to wipe out democracy. They cancelled formal democracy by banning elections and putting armed thugs directly in charge of all political life. They attacked real, practical democracy by intimidating, torturing, or assassinating those who tried to organise a collective political life for the poor: trade unionists, peasant activists, socialists, folk singers, left-wing priests and nuns, and the like. The most notorious dictatorships collaborated in the 1970s through “Operation Condor” to share tips and tricks for murdering left-wingers and pro-democracy activists.
And every time, the coup-plotters and their illegitimate regimes are cheered on by their great patron, the United States of America, and its elite opinion-makers. The capitalists and generals of Latin America are scum, with a solid track record of brutality. They’re capable of cooking up plots like this on their own initiative. But whether the trigger is pulled in La Paz or Washington, any new fascist government can expect funding, training, and ecstatic praise from the US. That was the case under the Cold War liberal governments of John F. Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, just as much as it was under the more notorious Nixon and Reagan. It was true under the “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush, whose officials Elliot Abrams and Otto Reich helped coordinate the brief overthrow of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in 2002. It was true under Obama, whose Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, directed $200 million in funding towards the police and military of Honduras after the elected president Manuel Zelaya was deposed in 2009. And now it is true under the “populist” Donald Trump.
“We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere”: that was the White House statement following the coup in Bolivia. It’s a helpful example of US elite political language. “Democratic” here means a police-military government that overturns the results of an election. “Prosperous” means an economy firmly run in the interests of entrenching the wealth and privilege of the small elites. And “free”, of course, means a place where the poor are terrorised by rampaging cops to show they’ll suffer if they stand up for themselves.
“Populist” Trump was joined by more mainstream figures – by US standards, at least – like the evangelical senator Marco Rubio. His Twitter account ("Follower of Christ, Husband, Father, Proud AMERICAN"), in between Bible verses, has published a running commentary on the need to get rid of Morales and support the coup government. He complained that Morales, now in exile, might “undermine peaceful democratic transition in Bolivia”. A peaceful democratic transition – from what, to what? From democracy to right-wing authoritarianism, by means of a police-military coup? The totalitarian government in Orwell’s 1984 was meant to be an over-the-top exaggeration when it promoted slogans like “freedom is slavery”, but for politicians in the USA, a violent coup is a “peaceful democratic transition”. So we know who not to trust when they talk to us about peace and democracy – in Bolivia, in the USA, or anywhere else in the world.
And on this, Trumpian populists and Tea Partiers like Rubio are at one with the sage liberal intelligentsia of the New York Times. For that august newspaper’s editorial board, Morales was undone by the “the arrogance of the populist”, and “what remains is to hope that Mr. Morales goes peacefully into exile in Mexico and to help Bolivia restore its wounded democracy”. And Marco Rubio was sure to tweet his approval: “@NYTOpinion gets it right on #Bolivia”, he wrote, linking the article. Likewise the Washington Post, the elite newspaper that adopted the unbelievably pompous masthead “Democracy Dies in Darkness” after a few run-ins with Trump’s handlers. After democracy really did die in Bolivia, the Post did their bit to promote the coup, alleging with absolutely no evidence that “a majority of Bolivians wanted [Morales] to leave office”. The US media have steadfastly refused to call the events in Bolivia what they are: a coup.
Populist Trump, pious Rubio, and the liberal Times and Post are all supposedly each other’s great enemies, at various times. But they’re united, as the leaders of the US ruling class always are, in their contempt for democracy, and their willingness to lie in the defence of right-wing thugs and their police-state regimes. In whatever guise they take – liberal or lunatic – the US ruling class are the most powerful enemies of democracy and equality the world has ever seen.
Also on Red Flag: Bolivia's "Movement for Socialism" and the coup
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