Looking to Bolivia’s Elections: U.S. leftism and imperialism


As October closes, we are left with a deep hunger in anticipation of a barren winter. The season is characterized by rebellious potential, and every year the world is haunted again by the ghosts of history. On Oct. 2, university students are cornered by the state military in Plaza de las Tres Culturas. By Oct. 6, the police storm Thammasat University and Bangkok realizes its “Great Sorrow.” Three days later a man is shot in La Higuera, Bolivia, and a crowd of people clothe themselves in his face and march in the streets. Nearing Oct. 22, a coalition is formed in the United States and globally to “Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation,” but the violence continues. D.C. protestors are still marching for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, underneath the U.S. news-media squall of lawn-signs and headline journalism. 

The U.S. elections are invasive and all-permeating in this political climate, and they can perhaps be surmised as two white old men arguing in front of a row of empty chairs. 

FILE – This combination of Sept. 29, 2020, file photos shows President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. Amid the tumult of the 2020 presidential campaign, one dynamic has remained constant: The Nov. 3 election offers voters a choice between substantially different policy paths. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Biden’s platform is a form of tactical negation. Just like Hillary Clinton in 2016, his saving grace is he is “not-Trump.” If you don’t support him, he blithely states, “You should go vote for Trump.” Any non-Democrat vote or a non-voter is a “Vote for Trump.” A more recent tactic is praising his non-radical 60’s; “Bernie-bros” and anyone else remotely left are told to grovel before a big donor’s darling candidate, the “non-left” “non-Trump” “non-populist” de facto election winner (assuming that a speculated “Trump coup” doesn’t occur). 

It’s unsurprising then that many American leftists have turned their attention instead toward the recent Bolivian elections, where the landslide election winner Luis Arce of MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo) is on track to be inaugurated as the President-elect of Bolivia. 

In October of 2019 indigenous leader Evo Morales of MAS ran for a fourth term in Bolivia. He and his party, since 2006, have established a nationalized hydrocarbon industry, various social programs and increased the minimum wage. For Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term, MAS had first attempted to pass a referendum amending the constitutional limit on consecutive presidential terms. When that narrowly lost, MAS instead petitioned the Plurinational Court to abolish Bolivia’s term limits on the grounds it was a human rights violation under the American Convention on Human Rights. This finally allowed Morales to run for a fourth term. 

In the U.S. it might seem shocking that a president would run for more than two terms. Term limits are viewed as a contraceptive measure against the birth of any would-be dictators. In a vast majority of liberal democracies across the world, some form of a term limit against consecutive re-elections is upheld. Yet term limits are incredibly varied at the international scale, ranging from four to fifteen years to, in many countries, a technically unlimited amount of terms (if every term-end the candidate was able to be successfully re-elected another time). Elected officials petition for an extension of their term limits for a variety of reasons, including Bill Clinton as Governor of Arkansas, Michael Bloomberg as New York City Mayor, and Franklin D. Roosevelt as U.S. president. None of these examples in the U.S. warranted the involvement of a foreign country in the name of “Democracy.” If we want to determine the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy, we must consider a broader set of variables than solely the legal term limit. 

Nevertheless, the amendment to the Bolivian constitution and an unexplained gap in the transmission of election results that provoked protests against potential election fraud became a condemnation of Evo Morales’s 11% lead in the election. Morales and MAS agreed to an audit of the election results, conducted by the OAS (Organization of American States), whose report described evidence that 38,000 votes were tampered with, 3,000 more votes than Morales’s supposed margin of victory (​nytimes.com/A-Bitter-Election​). Various U.S. politicians weighed in on Bolivian democracy or lack thereof, including CT senator Chris Murphy in a tweet which described Morales as having “turned his back on democracy.” 

By June 2020, these same OAS findings were called into question by the political scientists and independent researchers Nicolas Idrobo, Dorothy Kronick and Francisco Rodriguez, who described the OAS’s findings as hinging on statistical errors and misleading data. Moreover, the consequences of the election uproar were being witnessed internationally. “Interim” Bolivian president Jeanine Añez, a white conservative Christian fundamentalist, had assumed power not through election but an assumption of power after the resignation of Morales and several other government officials, along with the “strong support” of her followers in the military and police forces, which may or may not be described as a military coup (​nytimes.com/morales-steps-down​). The NYTimes began reporting key falsehoods that had shaped U.S. depictions of Evo Morales, reforming the paper’s earlier stance (​theintercept.com/ntimes-admits-falsehoods​). 

During the Bolivian power struggle there was an awareness of international involvement including significant U.S. involvement from both media, elected officials and the OAS, which represents both Latin American nations and the U.S. Many within both Bolivia and the U.S. have suggested that U.S. involvement in Bolivia has been motivated by the intention to denationalize Bolivia’s lithium supply and ensure international buyers like the U.S. have a cheaper supply of the mineral, which is used in rechargeable batteries. After the 2019 power grab, there was even speculation that Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, had interests in Bolivia’s lithium supply, to which Musk responded with the snarky yet condemning response “We will coup whoever we want!” (​counterpunch.org​) 

President-elect Luis Arce, right, and Vice President-elect David Choquehuanca, acknowledge supporters at a victory party after a final official vote count released yesterday declared him the winner of the presidential election, in El Alto, Bolivia, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said Arce won 55% of the votes against six rivals on the ballot, easily avoiding the need for a runoff. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

After a long year of turmoil, Bolivia finally seems ready for a peaceful transition of power to a Luis Arce presidency, which many see as a triumph against U.S. imperialism. Yet I am left questioning how critical this response is within the U.S., including my own reaction to these events, as a witness from “the other side” of imperialist dynamics. How much can I actually glean about this Bolivian crisis of democracy without being a Bolivian citizen, and from relying predominantly on news-media shaped by a U.S. understanding? Is there a self-defeating edge to the sort of leftism that is too keen on transposing itself into international affairs? 

Che Guevara’s ​Socialism and Man in Cuba​ briefly ruminates on this same question, remarking that the workers of imperialist nations “gradually lose the spirit of working-class internationalism due to a certain degree of complicity in the exploitation of the dependent countries, and … this at the same time weakens the combativity of the masses in the imperialist countries.” U.S. leftist discourse surrounding Bolivia runs the risk of becoming impotent due to an awareness of our own complicity in these events. This is further aggravated by the blatant fact that almost no mainstream left-leaning U.S. political figure, including politicians like Bernie Sanders and AOC, have even addressed U.S. imperialism comprehensively, and generally support U.S. imperial interests. The last politically-conscious movement in the U.S. against imperialism can be traced back to the Vietnam War protests or anti-Iraq War protests. 

Imperialism needs to be addressed in U.S. politics. We cannot advocate for the U.S. working class if we do not advocate for the international working class. This is represented clearly in U.S. dynamics with Cuba. We cannot advocate for better healthcare for the U.S. working class if we simultaneously issue economic sanctions that are so harsh they block ventilators and other COVID-19 medical supplies from reaching the island of Cuba (​Belly of the Beast: The War on Cuba​). Moreover, it’s clear that international politics profoundly affect our national policies. Whose lives could have been saved if the U.S. hadn’t blocked Cuban doctors from aiding in the Hurricane Katrina crisis? (​mintpressnews.com/bush-reject-aid​) 

I think this is a question white Americans in particular must grapple with. Black liberation movements of the past, such as the Black Panthers, have deftly demonstrated international solidarity. Similarly, representatives of Black Lives Matter, Ferguson visited Palestinians in 2015 to demonstrate solidarity (​colorlines.com/visits-palestine​). This sort of international solidarity becomes much murkier when dealing with a racialized and colonial divide, yet the divide must be surmounted. 

Leftists should look at the Bolivian civil unrest between the 2019 and the 2020 elections as not only a sign that aspects of the political system were broken or manipulated by foreign interests, but also as a demonstration of a politically engaged and public left. The American left needs to be an organized, active and anti-imperialist force. We can look to Bolivia, but must also remember our own position. U.S. leftism has a long way to go, and its development will be fundamentally different from the nations it has imperialized.  

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