- Ollie Vargasjournalist with Kawsachun News.
We go to Bolivia, where opponents of the coup government have entered day 11 of a general strike and nationwide highway blockade to protest the repeated postponement of Bolivia’s first presidential election since last year’s ouster of Evo Morales by the right-wing coup government of Jeanine Áñez, which was followed by an economic collapse and oppression. “Almost all of the key highways have roadblocks … bringing the country to a standstill,” says Ollie Vargas, Cochabamba-based reporter with Kawsachun News. “People feel impoverished. They feel persecuted. There’s a climate of authoritarianism in the country, persecution against leftists, media outlets.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn to Bolivia, where protests and blockades have shut down much of the country over the last 11 days. Unions and Indigenous groups launched a general strike August 3rd to condemn Bolivia’s right-wing interim President Jeanine Áñez for repeatedly postponing the country’s presidential election. Áñez said the election delays are needed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but her opponents say she’s using the pandemic to strengthen her presidential campaign and to crack down on critics.
Áñez took power in November, following a coup that ousted former President Evo Morales, the country’s first Indigenous leader. Áñez has called Indigenous politicians “savages” and has vowed to bring the Bible back to Bolivia.
On Monday, the Bolivian government deployed the military as the road blockades shut off access to La Paz and other cities. Pro-government paramilitary forces have also attacked the protesters. Organizers of the general strike are calling for the new elections to take place on September 6th.
PROTESTER: [translated] We will not allow this de facto government to embezzle our Plurinational State of Bolivia. In this council, we determined we will carry on with the protest until the September 6 elections are ratified.
AMY GOODMAN: Other protesters accuse the coup Bolivian government of using the COVID-19 pandemic to consolidate power.
ELEUTERIO CALLE: [translated] The Bolivian people of El Alto are demanding the resignation of Jeanine Áñez and her lazy ministers. They are just using this moment to loot our country in the name of health.
AMY GOODMAN: The United States has come out in support of Bolivia’s coup government, claiming the ongoing blockade and general strike, quote, “threaten democracy.”
Following last year’s coup, Bolivia experienced one of the deadliest and most repressive periods in decades as the government carried out summary executions and arbitrary detentions. The violence is detailed in a new report by Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights. James Cavallaro, the former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said, “These abuses mirror the authoritarian behavior of the dictatorships of the 1970s in the Americas. This must stop,” he said.
We go now to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where we’re joined by Ollie Vargas, journalist with Kawsachun News.
You’ve been on the streets every day, Ollie. Can you describe what’s happening there and just who this coup president, Áñez, is, who recently tested positive also for COVID-19?
OLLIE VARGAS: Yes. Thanks for having me on.
That’s right. We’re on day 11 now of the general strike that was called by the National Workers Federation, but also by the Indigenous groups across most rural areas of the country. And almost all of the key highways in the country have roadblocks. People put stones, erecting barricades across all of these, bringing the country to a standstill. As I said, every single region, every department of the country, is taking part in this strike. And it’s shown the level — the mobilizing force of those who oppose the current coup government.
And the movement was triggered by the suspension of elections, the fourth suspension in three months, but I think it’s about a much wider anger that exists in society towards the government, towards the current president, Jeanine Áñez, I think, for a long time. They’ve been in power now for nine months. And in that time, Bolivia has gone from being the fastest-growing economy in the region to an economic collapse, that began before COVID-19. People feel impoverished. They feel persecuted. There’s a climate of authoritarianism in the country, persecution against leftists, against media outlets, such as our own. And people — you know, the suspension of the elections was a trigger for the wider discontent there is to spill out.
And that’s how — that’s why we’re seeing a number of different demands, as well, within the movement, some calling for elections as soon as possible — you know, Evo Morales’s wing of the movement — and then more radical sections calling for the immediate sort of overthrow of the government. And I think the next couple of days will be key to seeing which section of the movement will win out.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Ollie Vargas, can you talk about how security forces have responded to the protesters, and in particular the paramilitary groups that have reportedly been attacking them? Who are these paramilitary security forces? And since when and by whom have they been deployed?
OLLIE VARGAS: The question of repression during this last period, I think, is an interesting question. Actually, the police and military haven’t been mobilized very much. There’s a lot of reports that police in some of the big cities have refused to be deployed — there’s unconfirmed reports. But we know that the current government isn’t shy about bringing out the police and military when they want to. Just after the coup, they carried out two massacres of Indigenous protesters who were protesting against the coup. And then, the fact that they haven’t been able to mobilize the police and military, I think, is something worth commenting upon. Instead, what they’ve had to do is use these paramilitary groups, two in particular — one in the city of Santa Cruz in the east, and another in the city of Cochabamba.
In Cochabamaba, they’re called the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala, which is a group of mostly sort of ex-criminals, gang members, who formed as a political group during the protests against Evo Morales in October, and they’ve been reactivated and remobilized. And they’re armed. They have firearms. And they’ve gone to attack protests in the city of Cochabamba at one key point.
In the city of Santa Cruz, there’s a group called the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, who are a group, a much older group, going back many decades, formed in a kind of traditionally fascist model, religious elements to it, as well. And they were active in the 2008, 2009 protests against Evo Morales, which WikiLeaks cables have since revealed were having money funneled to them by the U.S. government via USAID. And these groups, again, have gone out to some of the smaller towns outside the city to attack protesters. In one town, Santa Rosa, in Santa Cruz, three people were shot by this group — and no deaths, but three people have been hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
And the government itself have openly endorsed these groups. A couple days ago, the minister of defense said that this group in Santa Cruz, the Cruceñistas, you know, “They know to do. They need to send a message to Bolivia.” And the interior minister has, a number of times, publicly endorsed the group in Cochabamba, calling them, you know, heroes in the fight for democracy, and this sort of thing.
So, they’re mobilizing paramilitary groups to violently crush protests, but they haven’t been able to do that on a national scale, and they haven’t been able to attack the strongest points of the protests, because these paramilitary groups are small at the same time.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the ousted President Evo Morales speaking to Al Jazeera in Mexico City last year after the coup.
EVO MORALES: [translated] There was a political, ideological, social, cultural and financial liberation. And what they can’t forgive is that I nationalized the natural resources. The North American empire doesn’t forgive that a left-wing country, a socialist community, shows the world that there is a non-capitalist way of doing things with equality, dignity and identity.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you tell us about this postponed election and what exactly Evo Morales is saying, and the coup president now, supported by the United States, Áñez, who’s tested positive for COVID, calling Indigenous people “savages,” saying she’s bringing the Bible back to Bolivia, what this all means?
OLLIE VARGAS: So, the elections were supposed to be held on May the 3rd, which is already quite late. Remember, the so-called interim president took power in November, mid-November 2019. She was supposed to call elections within three months. That didn’t happen. And eventually, they agreed on May the 3rd as a day.
And that was supposed to be a sort of peaceful, democratic route out of the crisis, a democratic route out of the current government, which has never had a significant base of support and which was expected to lose the election. That got postponed with the COVID-19 crisis. There was a disappointment among the people, but a general acceptance because of the way that the pandemic was developing at the time.
So, then, the Legislature, the elected Legislature, where the MAS has a majority, said the election should be in August. That got suspended again. And finally, September the 6th was agreed on as a day. All the parties signed up to it, including the Movement for Socialism.
But then, what we saw after that was the — it became very clear that Áñez’s popularity was continuing to slide, the fact that people had lost — with the quarantine, the vast majority of people lost their jobs, lost their incomes and received no support, no income support from the state. Instead, what you saw was the government taking out IMF loans, privatizing, paralyzing sort of a big state project that the government of Evo Morales —
AMY GOODMAN: Ollie, we just have 30 seconds, but I wanted to ask you about the Trump administration condemning the blockades in Bolivia, claiming the protesters are the ones disrupting the democratic process. If you can talk about what difference it makes, the U.S. position on Bolivia, very quickly?
OLLIE VARGAS: Well, the U.S. needs to pressure the Bolivian government to take the peaceful, democratic route out of this crisis, which is to accept elections as soon as possible, but without the persecution that they’ve been carrying out against the MAS, against leftist candidates. And if they can do that, then that is the only way that Bolivia can overcome this crisis in a peaceful way. The other option is a forcible overthrow of the government, or a state — a brutal state crackdown on the protests and the general strike.
AMY GOODMAN: Ollie Vargas, we want to thank you for being with us, journalist with Kawsachun News, joining us from Cochabamba, Bolivia.
And that does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, María Taracena, Carla Wills. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks for joining us.