The Coup in Bolivia: Lessons for our Movement
Stansfield Smith, Chicago ALBA Solidarity
The US engineered another coup, this time Bolivia, and again our movement could not effectively counter pro-coup propaganda the US was selling to the public, let alone taking any action to stop it.
Our imperative need for much greater long-term cooperative work to combat US interventions is evident. Needed is a qualitatively higher level of unity of action among our networks to combat imperialism. Lenin, one of the most effective leaders of the struggles against the ruling classes, emphasized that “The proletariat has no other weapon in the fight for power except organization.”
Yet any divisiveness among ourselves and our alliances is a secondary issue. We often pursue political work while poorly trained in the lessons our predecessors learned from their experiences in combating the corporate elite’s repressive actions at home and abroad. The movement against ruling class brutality has accumulated over the centuries a valuable heritage of struggle and an invaluable body of experience concerning effective and ineffective strategies and tactics under the given conditions. No school or clearing house collects and teaches this heritage, so we have to relearn these lessons almost from scratch each generation. Moreover, we usually must recreate a national network to implement our collective anti-imperialist struggle every generation.
Here, the ruling class and their government have significant advantages over us. They have their own legacy of experience in maintaining their rule, and they maintain a series of institutions devoted to gathering and passing down their methods of regime change (coups, color revolutions, wars), political disruption, and media disinformation campaigns. These ruling class institutions include universities, think tanks, and government agencies like the CIA, DIA, and FBI. The ruling class has the capacity to manufacture and implement a coup or a domestic wave of political repression almost off-the-shelf. On this score, they are light years ahead of us, while we are often reduced to the elementary level of having to learn how to control and use fire each generation.
Another reason for our lack of effective anti-imperialist organization is our lack of confidence that a serious challenge to US imperial power is even possible, which certainly seems understandable given the above. Nevertheless, we must also recognize that their system of corporate imperial rule is not stable, as the periodic economic crises and climate catastrophe in the coming years will show us. The rulers’ “solution” to these issues will only antagonize the majority of humanity and make them fight corporate domination of human life.
Role of US Government Disruption
Another cause of our weakness is the government disruption of our movements, something we gloss over. Defending Rights and Dissent just reported on FBI spying over the last ten years in “Still Spying on Dissent,” showing how the FBI goes far beyond just spying to include break-ins, disruptions, political frame-ups, stings, murder, blackmail, and drug-dealing.
These operations have escalated with Obama signing NDAA 2017, which lifted restrictions on the CIA and other organs of the national security state to feed fake news to the US population. The NDAA established “an executive branch interagency committee to counter active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence over peoples and governments…through front groups, covert broadcasting, media manipulation, disinformation or forgeries, funding agents of influence, incitement, offensive counterintelligence, assassinations, or terrorist acts.”
Senator Portman, one of the chief authors of the law, stated its intent is to “improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation from our enemies by establishing an interagency center housed at the State Department to coordinate and synchronize counter-propaganda efforts throughout the U.S. government. To support these efforts, the bill also creates a grant program for NGOs, think tanks, civil society and other experts outside government.” NGOs and civil society can receive grants to paint voices of the anti-war movement as spreaders of Russian “disinformation.” This may shed light on the origin of the story that those opposed to the regime change operation on Syria are “Putinists” and “Assadists.”
Lack of Popular Participation in Social Movements
Our movement’s weakness must be seen as a result of the people’s insufficient participation in the fight against US wars and the military budget, even though both rob us of the wealth we need to counter our worsening quality of life. This lack of participation, lack of sustained mobilization, is hardly unique to the anti-war struggle. At present this characterizes the spectrum of social movements: the women’s movement, immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, and so on. And even while the movement against climate change recently could rally four million, with 600,000 in the US, Greta Thunberg acknowledged the movement has not stopped carbon emissions from continuing to increase.
Almost everyone is aware of the looming climate catastrophe around the corner, but people are generally expecting someone else to do something about it. They do not understand that the ruling class plans to do nothing, that nothing will be accomplished until we mobilize in the many millions.
Partly a result of seeming a more viable alternative to movement building and partly a result of political naivete, people still look for solutions by investing their time and money in Democratic and Republican campaigns. For now, the movements that bring large numbers out into the streets are those contained by these two parties. This undermines our building forces independent of these two corporate parties, which serve to snuff out the movements that represent the interests of the 99%.
The present non-existence of massive anti-intervention protests is partly a response to the failure of our major mobilizations of hundreds of thousands in 2002-2003 demanding a halt to the planned war on Iraq. In 2011 the Occupy movement spread like wildfire, only to be snuffed out by government repression, and again, very little changed. People do not struggle and fight for a goal if we feel our time and effort won’t pay off and make it worthwhile. This combined with the disillusion from the unfulfilled hopes of the Obama era has left many today feeling ripped off, powerless and demoralized.
When people feel this way, they shrink their lives into a small safe zone and pursue their private lives in a little protective bubble where they find some measure of comfort. The coming economic crisis and climate disaster will pop many a bubble and people will be pushed into active political opposition to the 1%. Once some important victories for us have been won, many thousands and then millions will be inspired to again awaken and fight for our demands.
Mistakes of our Bolivian allies and Lessons for us
- The State as Armed Bodies of Men
Lenin wrote in State and Revolution that the state consists of special bodies of armed men, and those who controlled these special bodies controlled the state. With the coup in Bolivia we were given a reminder. Luis Alfonso Mena S. wrote, entirely correctly, “The most important lesson from what happened on Sunday, November 10, 2019 in Bolivia is that a revolution is vulnerable when it relies on armed forces from bourgeois institutions. That is why Hugo Chavez transformed his country’s armed forces, gave them a popular and class character, turned them into defenders of the Venezuelan revolution and its people, and today they constitute one of the fundamental supports of the Bolivarian process, since they have never yielded to offers, blackmail or threats from U.S. imperialism and its lackeys on the continent.”
Moreover, as Nino Pagliccia pointed out “Venezuela has developed a strong civic-military union supported by thousands of voluntary militias that has been the bastion against which the Hybrid War has failed despite the numerous attempts to break that union.”
A people’s militia in Bolivia could have maintained order in most of the country after the police forces declared they would not interfere against anti-Evo violence and before the military chiefs told Evo to resign. Fidel Castro said right after the coup against Allende in Chile, “If every worker, if every laborer, had had a rifle in his hands, the fascist coup in Chile would not have happened.” However, the MAS government never built a popular militia, and did not fill the military command structure with loyal defenders of the constitution.
Marxists often state that as long as a socialist government does not destroy the old capitalist state and create a new system of governing, including a new military and police force to replace that inherited from previous regimes, the price for this error will be a counter-revolutionary coup by the old military hierarchy. This is often true but oversimplified.
Nicaragua’s military high command is not loyal to the capitalist class because it was reconstituted after the 1979 Sandinista revolution. With the return to power of the capitalist class with Violetta Chamarro in 1990, the Nicaraguan military remained under the Sandinista high command of Humberto Ortega. Change in the military leadership continued to remain largely under its own control: to replace a current military chief, the military limits the president’s options to three names it submits to the president to choose among. The military today is committed to the constitution and to not repressing the people. In Nicaragua’s 2018 protests and violence, the military stayed in their barracks.
Venezuela is another case of a pro-socialist government presiding over a capitalist economic system, with the military loyal to the Chavez-era Bolivarian constitution. Venezuela’s military was somewhat restructured by nationalistic officers back in the early 1970s, and later received a much more progressive education. Venezuela had no military caste as in Argentina or Chile, with many senior officers coming from poor urban and peasant families.
One of Chavez’ first decisions after assuming the presidency was the creation of Plan Bolivar, sending the troops to the barrios to help clean up, paint buildings, distribute food, provide medical care, and attend to the people. The failed coup attempts since 2002 enabled the government to remove right-wingers from the military. Chavez opened the Military Academy to low income Venezuelans so they could rise up in the officer corps. He also created an efficient intelligence service, which enabled the government to unmask coup-plotters. Today the Venezuelan military defends the revolutionary nationalist process.
2. Importance of mobilizing and educating the people
Diosdado Cabello, president of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, hit upon another mistake of Evo when he spoke right after the rightwing coup in Bolivia. The main antidote against fascism is popular mobilization. Under Evo Morales long presidency this lesson was neglected. MAS also did not lead a nationwide effort to protest the coup as it was unfolding, rather it compromised and sought “peace.” Cabello added “we [in Venezuela] are going to the streets to reject the violence of imperialism…We are not surprised by the actions of the right, here in Venezuela they tried the same thing, we already know them.” Venezuela is well-prepared and experienced in mobilizing the people to combat attempted coups.
Over the years, MAS had become an electoral party, ill-equipped to respond to the rightwing’s abrupt switch from electoral politics to street violence. Evo and his circle did not place sufficient emphasis on political education of the masses, nor on their self-organization, nor on building a national network of political activists committed to mobilizing people in defense of The Process of Change. In contrast, Fidel’s Cuba understood these measures were needed to survive under the relentless US imperial pressure, and Cuba made itself impenetrable to regime change.
The Bolivian military coup against an elected progressive head of state provides lessons for Bernie Sanders campaign supporters. In the US, the two-party system has developed many tools to make sure figures like Bernie never becomes the candidate, such as rigging the primaries and engaging in corporate media smear campaigns. Nor is electing such a seeming progressive leader, like we saw in 2008, close to the end of the battle. The leader’s initiatives could be blocked by Congress, by in the courts, by the federal bureaucracy. A genuinely progressive president could be removed from office on unwarranted charges, as with Dilma and Lula in Brazil, or here, as the Democrats seek to do with the isolationist Donald Trump.
The national security state has a vast array of tools developed from its extensive experience in wars, coups, and disruptions that it can employ at home to terminate a progressive president’s tenure or neutralize any progressive movement. Unfortunately, most people still suffer from the naive delusion that we live in a uniquely free and democratic country, that we are exempt from coups and similar methods the US routinely uses abroad.
Evo Morales made other errors during the coup process, such as calling for the OAS to verify the votes, even though he had repeatedly denounced the OAS as a tool of the US. For instance in 2017 he said “I offer to free brother [OAS General Secretary] Luis Almagro from submission to the North American empire. All for the dignity and sovereignty of our peoples.” Yet he invited in this US tool, which then found the election had “irregularities.”
Corporate Media Disinformation and Building a People’s Alternative
Another agent, the corporate media, as Alfredo Serrano Mancilla noted, “are never absent in each coup. They are keys to building the frame of reference before, during and after…This media was always the maximum exponent of the fraud scenario, before and after, defending the lack of knowledge of the results from the beginning and quickly emerging to endorse the undemocratic transition.”
Corporate control of the media complements control of the armed forces in creating regime change. The media can monopolize access to information, are able to effectively present disinformation as news, seen so well in the 2002 coup against Chavez, in Nicaragua in 2018, Libya in 2011, and Syria for years. Creating a popular mass media widely read both locally and internationally that is a mouthpiece for the 99% is necessary yet difficult task, something even Chavista Venezuela still has not accomplished successfully.
Our Responsibility in the Imperial Core
A serious analysis of what is happening in a Third World country, progressive or not, must start with the role Western imperialism has played, including the role of Western NGOs. Otherwise, analysis does not put in perspective the problems the country faces, and indirectly gives cover to imperialism’s role.
Alison Bodine and Ali Yerevani, writing on the US war against Venezuela, sum up well our responsibilities:
“At the root of all conflicts and battles of imperialist countries against independent countries, including colonial and semi-colonial countries, is the drive to deny them their sovereignty and self-rule. Everything else is secondary…. The best way to contribute to the struggle of Venezuelan people against the reactionary pro-imperialist right-wing opposition inside Venezuela and against the constant attack, sanctions, and interventions of imperialism, is to build a strong antiwar, anti-imperialist movement that also focuses on building a Venezuela solidarity movement in defense of self-determination for the Venezuelan people.”
This must include combating regime change disinformation, which aims to delegitimize governments not submitting to imperial dictates, justifying coups, murderous economic sanctions, proxy wars and “humanitarian” invasions. The corporate media can be a more sophisticated tool for regime change than the military, permitting Washington to take advantage of the story that anything short of outright US troop invasion is not intervention nor regime change.
Many liberal and faux “left” websites and groups have become transmission belts for this regime change propaganda into the progressive movement, sometimes even taking NED funding. This has been countered from an anti-imperialist stance by our “tribunes of the people”. Examples include Alan Macleod on Venezuela, AFGJ on Nicaragua, The Grayzone on China, Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley on Syria, Popular Resistance on Hong Kong, Consortium News and Stephen Cohen on Russiagate, 21stcenturywire.com on Libya, Dan Kovalik, Phil Wilayto on Iran.
Besides working to build a more united mass anti-imperialist movement, necessary tasks for us today include continuing to educate the public about, one, widespread corporate media disinformation, two, the need to respect the sovereignty of other nations, and three, unmasking the faux left which behaves like amateur soft agents of the US intelligence services.