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Massacre in Cochabamba: Anti-Indigenous Violence Escalates as Mass Protests Denounce Coup in Bolivia

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In Bolivia, at least 23 people have died amid escalating violence since President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, resigned at the demand of the military last week. Growing unrest quickly turned to violent chaos on Friday outside Cochabamba when military forces opened fire on indigenous pro-Morales demonstrators, killing at least nine people and injuring more than 100. The violence began soon after thousands of protesters — many indigenous coca leaf growers — gathered for a peaceful march in the town of Sacaba and then attempted to cross a military checkpoint into Cochabamba. Amid this escalating violence and reports of widespread anti-indigenous racism, protesters are demanding self-declared interim President Jeanine Áñez step down. Áñez is a right-wing Bolivian legislator who named herself president at a legislative session without quorum last week. She said that exiled socialist President Morales, who fled to Mexico after he was deposed by the military on November 10, would not be allowed to compete in a new round of elections and would face prosecution if he returned to Bolivia, which has a majority indigenous population. U.N. special envoy Jean Arnault on Sunday called for talks between Jeanine Áñez and leaders of Morales’s political party Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, though a date has not been set. From Cochabamba, we speak with Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network and a researcher, activist and analyst with over two decades of experience in Bolivia.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the coup in Bolivia, where at least 23 people have died amidst escalating violence since President Evo Morales resigned at the demand of the military last week. Growing unrest quickly turned to violent chaos on Friday outside Cochabamba when military forces opened fire on indigenous pro-Morales protesters, killing at least nine people, injuring more than a hundred. The violence began soon after thousands of protesters — many indigenous coca leaf growers — gathered for a peaceful march in the town of Sacaba and then attempted to cross a military checkpoint into Cochabamba. This is a demonstrator in Sacaba.

PROTESTER: [translated] They are saying the people from the MAS are attacking, but this is not true. They have come peacefully. And the journalists of Bolivia are not talking with people from here because they know they are going to tell the truth, and they do not want to unveil the truth. We are just asking for peace for Bolivia. Please. We do not want more dead. We do not want more sadness. You can see by yourself how many people have died.

AMY GOODMAN: The massacre came one day after self-proclaimed President Jeanine Áñez issued a decree protecting the military from prosecution for violent acts. Amid this escalating violence and reports of widespread anti-indigenous racism, protesters are demanding the resignation of Áñez, a right-wing Bolivian legislator who named herself president at a legislative session without quorum last week. She then swore in a new Cabinet with no indigenous members. She has since added indigenous people to her Cabinet under pressure. Áñez has previously called indigenous communities “Satanic” and has declared her presidency will bring the Bible back to Bolivia. She said last week that exiled socialist President Evo Morales, who fled to Mexico after he was deposed by the military on Sunday, his home sacked, would not be allowed to compete in a new round of elections, and he would face prosecution if he returned to Bolivia. Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Bolivia has a majority-indigenous population. On Sunday, U.N. special envoy Jean Arnault called for talks between Jeanine Áñez and leaders of Morales’s political party MAS — that’s Movement Toward Socialism. A date hasn’t been set.

For more, we go directly to Cochabamba, just where the massacre took place. We’re joined by Kathryn Ledebur via Democracy Now! video stream. She’s the director of the Andean Information Network, researcher, activist, analyst, with over two decades of experience in Bolivia.

Kathryn, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you describe what you understand took place on Friday?

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: Well, we went, and we investigated the event. We were there Friday night. It’s very clear — we did over 30 interviews with the Harvard Human Rights Clinic — that protesters had been banned. Anyone from the Chapare tropical area had been blocked from entering Cochabamba, searched at gunpoint. And so they attempted to march peacefully. All witnesses state that they had taken their surgical masks off — people are wearing surgical masks because there’s a great deal of tear gas — that they were unarmed, that they were marching peacefully, that the military and police combined forces, fired tear gas and, as they were escaping, fired from bridges, fired directly at them, fired from a helicopter. We have photos of the helicopter with the snipers, people with gunshot wounds at the top of their head, in the forehead, people shot directly in the heart. This is a gross use of excessive use of force. It’s targeting indigenous people. It really is a clear sign of a military brutal dictatorship.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from a rally in Cochabamba over the weekend. Here a man is denouncing the Bolivia media’s lack of coverage of military and police violence against the pro-Morales indigenous protesters.

PROTESTER: [translated] Why don’t journalists come here to show the truth of my fallen brothers and sisters? Why do the police justify the violence, saying that we are going to attack them? My people are not going to attack you. My people are searching for peace. That is all we want. I am asking the press to come here and to show the reality. Do not distort the information. Stop generating more violence. We are fighting as Bolivians. We are searching for peace and justice. What do we want? Justice. We want justice now.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a woman at the funeral of one of the nine confirmed victims, after the Bolivian military forces opened fire at the indigenous pro-Morales protesters in the town of Sacaba on Friday.

MOURNER: [translated] No one is showing what people are going through right now. I thank the people who are here to provide us with food. We’re going to keep fighting, brothers and sisters. The people are not alone. We want her to resign.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Kathryn Ledebur, take us through this weekend. You have the horror of the massacre on Friday. How was the military armed?

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: The military was armed — we didn’t see any injuries from rubber pellets, but we found at the site of the massacre, during our investigation Friday night, hundreds of tear gas canisters, U.S.-issued tear gas, two different kinds, and hundreds of spent military bullets. It’s interesting to note that the self-proclaimed Bolivian government claims that coca growers were armed and that they had firearms. That is patently false. I’ve worked with the coca growers for over 20 years. Some of them have Chaco War muskets that they use to hunt animals. There was only one kind of bullet. It was a military-issued bullet. I think the forensic medical reports will come out today and confirm that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the massacre coming one day after the self-proclaimed President Jeanine Áñez issued this decree protecting the military from prosecution for violent acts? And then tell us exactly who Áñez is.

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: This decree — and this is very important to note — in periods, very undemocratic periods and periods of great violence in Bolivia, that this is a supreme decree that’s issued, that’s not public. It’s not published in the listing of decrees. And so it’s something that was passed without public knowledge. And then the movement for excessive use of force, and now their targeting MAS senators for sedition, is something that’s very shocking. It’s important to note that the Inter-American Human RightsCommission has called this licensed-to-kill, guaranteed-impunity decree a profound violation of human rights. It’s the kind of systematic step to smother democracy, to smother alternative voices. You have to understand that coca grower radio stations, that their Facebook pages, that other community radios have been burned, shut down, their frequency blocked. And so, what we’re seeing is a silencing, that’s systematic, of indigenous people and their rights in this process, and that all of the affected people in the massacre highlighted that focus against them as indigenous people.

Jeanine Áñez is a senator. She was the second secretary — the second vice president of the Senate, and no constitutional right in the line of succession at all. This self-proclaimed senator from the lowland Beni region is focused on the extreme right, an extreme form of Christianity. Her tweets, that have been verified, although they’ve been erased, point to mocking indigenous people, mocking indigenous religions, very discriminatory things, as have her other ministers said. And this Cabinet and this focus is not behaving as a traditional — a transitional government should. We had a transitional government in 2005. They’re supposed to call elections, not change policy. I think it’s very dramatic that Áñez’s first act as self-proclaimed president was to name a new military high command. And now the military — the day after Morales resigned, the military has been out on the streets, and we have seen indigenous people killed and hundreds of indigenous people shot with live ammunition.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk more about the people who have filled the vacuum since Morales was forced out, now in Mexico? For example, can you talk about Luis Fernando Camacho, part of a group of people, fiercely anti-indigenous, a fundamentalist Christian, a pro-fascist — for example, Luis Fernando Camacho?

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: I think it’s important to note that in the electoral process — and, you know, the opposition, although it was not united, the main candidate was Carlos Mesa, who was supposed to be a centrist opposition leader. Camacho was never a candidate. But Camacho, increasingly in the past few weeks, has begun to drive the discourse of the opposition. And you see these centrist leaders folding into this far-right extreme approach. It’s important to know that Camacho, a Santa Cruz leader, got his start as leader of the Santa Cruz Youth League. This is an organization that uses the Nazi salute in their meetings. This is something that’s terrifying. He then became president of the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee. He was elected by less than 250 people. You see a charismatic Christian gloss on a message of hate, a laying of hands on opposition leaders, statements that God has granted Mesa the right to be president, and a virtual control of Santa Cruz, where citizens are forced to obtain from this committee, that has no legal right, to get the permission to go from one place to the next and permission to actually go to the airport. This is a terrifying situation. And [inaudible] this coup, pitched in, been submitted, and people’s fundamental rights and due process and human rights have been smothered in a period of a week is really quite terrifying and something the international community needs to attend to.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to the exiled Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking to The Washington Post Friday about one of the reasons he was forced to resign.

EVO MORALES: [translated] I proposed a new Supreme Electoral Tribunal, new political actors and new elections without Evo Morales. They did not accept it. But the aggressions continued, the burning of houses, aggression toward our authorities, union leaders, threats to lynch our wives, relatives, children. It was unbearable. So, to prevent such aggressions from the right, the violent ones, I stepped down.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Morales speaking from Mexico. And he also said, in an interview with Al Jazeera, that if he was allowed to go back, he would not seek to run in the next elections, but he wants to finish the last two months of his term. Kathryn, we just have 30 seconds. Your response and what you see happening going forward? There you are in Cochabamba, the site, the area of the massacre that just took place.

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: You know, it’s not clear. At this rate, I would say, if there is not urgent dialogue and more democratic behavior on the part of the right, we’re going to see escalating violence, the tensions of opposition leaders, and the opposition acting on the violent threats they have made against MAS supporters, human rights defenders and journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathryn Ledebur, we thank you for being with us, director of the Andean Information Network, speaking to us from Cochabamba. She’s a researcher, an activist and analyst, has been in Bolivia for more than 20 years.

When we come back, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted the execution of Rodney Reed. He was scheduled to die Wednesday. We’ll speak with Rodney’s family and his lawyer. Stay with us.

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