For Bolivia’s Far Right, The Chickens Come Home to Roost

By Cindy Forster on November 14, 2022

compesinos in Santa Cruz are organizing against right wing violence

Most of Bolivia’s Right is murderous, but one of its captains, Luis Fernando Camacho who led the paramilitary aspects of the 2019 coup, is apparently too powerful to arrest, and became governor of the stronghold of the Right in Santa Cruz.

In the last 21 days he has been allowed “to carry out a coup d’état in the city of Santa Cruz,” in the words of Pedro Damián Dorado, vice president of the association of municipalities of the department by the same name. Constant media misinformation is the glue that holds together Camacho’s base, which can be counted in the nearly 230,000, mostly middle-class people who turned out for his latest political meeting. In late October, he launched the shutdown of the city for the foreseeable future. It is Bolivia’s largest and most prosperous metropolis – and the economic motor of the country. Camacho is a very rich man and to preserve the wealth of the few, he is once again acting as a supreme threat to democracy.

Yet the story from the grassroots has shifted radically since the de facto coup regime, that came to power exactly three years ago and lasted less than a year. When the far-right of Camacho declared a total strike and work stoppage in the city of Santa Cruz three weeks ago, the masses refused to comply. We can gauge how much the country has changed by charting the response of the poor. They practiced a new set of tactics that both evaded confrontation, and amassed sheer numbers of people in resistance.

Women man the barricades

The inhabitants of the low-income city of La Guardia within the metropolitan region of Santa Cruz defended its perimeters on November 1st and 2nd. They did so against masked youth who wielded knives and blades, firecrackers used as weapons, and firearms. Juan Pinto, a local leader, said the attackers were the armed wing of the proudly fascist Right, the paramilitary Union of Santa Cruz Youth or UJC. Women of the community gathered up the spent munitions of the UJC – three-bladed razor-pinwheels about the size of the palm of a hand, homemade explosives including grenades, and staves embedded with nails.

The working-class territory “Plan 3000” (numbering over 300,000 people), within the confines of Santa Cruz, has likewise held off the paramilitaries. To the news cameras they offer analyses lodged in the realities of their own labor, which is regional, national, and transnational. Migrants from the Indigenous high Andes, Indigenous from the Amazon and the dry brush expanses of the Chaco, and poor mestizos have built the economy of Santa Cruz. Their labor is the lifeblood of the region’s prosperity.

This time of crisis may witness the birth of a plurinational power-base of the masses in urban Santa Cruz. It already exists in rural Santa Cruz, that spreads from the city’s borders to Brazil and Paraguay, and up into the lower reaches of the Andes where Che Guevara gave his life.

Campesinos march on the city

Social movements across the department of Santa Cruz marched on the city, calling for the resignation of Governor Camacho. They are intent on victory, and refuse violence.

A cabildo or assembly in the municipio of Yapacani, a political stronghold of the poor, decided at the end of October that five municipios would mount a massive, peaceful march to bring about Camacho’s resignation. By November 4, 1,500 campesinos and poor people from the Santa Cruz provinces were walking to the besieged city with white flags.

The social movements of the poor recovered their democracy in 2020 after enduring 12 months of terror that Camacho himself installed. With this memory, many thousands more have joined the deeply symbolic presence of the majorities in these last weeks, pitting their courage against the richest oligarchy in the country. The letter of resignation they are trying to deliver to Governor Camacho is an inverse image of the letter of resignation that Camacho himself used to lead thousands of paramilitaries into La Paz, and force out Evo Morales. Wrily, campesinos say Camacho taught them the strategy.

Bolivia is a country woven together by battle-hardened unions and movements of unusual size and tenacity that have led the triumphs of the poor. All of the workers under the umbrella labor federation of the department of Santa Cruz joined in the call for the governor’s resignation. On November 4th , CIDOB, which represents the Amazonian Indigenous (and is always courted by the Right), made the same demand. The campesino federation of the department did likewise, as did peasant and Indigenous women organized as “Bartolinas,” who ally with the government but are not a part of it. Indigenous who have migrated from the colder elevations –the Interculturales– call for Camacho’s resignation on the grounds he has not executed any beneficial works or projects, only paying salaries, and his budget is the least-spent of any governor’s in the country. The list keeps growing of those calling for him to step down.

Rightwing race war and women as targets

The Right defines itself as the sworn enemy of the highland Aymara and Quechua, who it understands as “savages” imposing majority rule. Camacho’s shutdown of Santa Cruz has renewed streams of racism against the ancestral peoples of the lowland department. In recent times, original peoples have been enslaved in rural Santa Cruz. Rightwing Santa Cruz imagines itself as a bastion of culturally European peoples.

On October 28th , Ayoreos in their home community –mostly women– were attacked by a yelling, shirtless, and appointed sub-governor of Camacho, Daniel Velásquez, with a parade of followers. In various rural communities, he was burning the homes of people protesting the elite shutdown. The Ayoreos were standing firm on their traditional lands. Velásquez called them “an open sore” of Bolivia.

The raging sub-governor brandished a chicote or traditional whip. He had the homes of the Ayoreos demolished by a tractor. Not a word was said by his boss Camacho, who launched the blockade saying it was a peaceful exercise of freedom of expression. Four of the women attacked by the sub-governor denounced his actions as crimes under the Constitution, and the case has been filed at the level of the Interamerican court system.

Santo Humaná, “leader of the Guarayos who are original peoples, filmed himself and a companion as they hid in the wild underbrush after being beaten and chased by paramilitaries,” a reporter said to introduce what followed. Humaná stated, “If I leave this underbrush alive” –many of his comrades had been injured– “We are not going to stand by watching, like what happened in 2019. If we must, we will offer our  lives. For the campesinos who work the land, if we don’t work, we don’t eat. Our communities have run out of gasoline, we have no more food. We have brought this letter of resignation for Camacho and we are going to deliver it for him to sign.”  [ Bolivia TV. Bien de Tarde. “Fuimos atropellados y atacados”, “Santo Humaná -Dirigente de guarayos”]

Former congresswoman Lidia Patty spearheaded the first lawsuits against the Right, on charges of massacres and sedition, from practically the moment the coup government started its practice of exemplary killings and terror in November of 2019. Patty, always in her full Indigenous dress, tried to deliver the letter of resignation to Camacho’s lawyer at the entrance to the Plurinational Assembly in the city of La Paz, but he refused to accept it.

The regional leader of peasant and Indigenous women in Santa Cruz, Felipa Montenegro of the Bartolinas, is indefatigable, as are her male colleagues. She was the one singled out for death threats against herself and her family, reminiscent of the coup regime’s attacks in the months leading up to the coup and then the year afterward. Any woman deemed to be Indigenous could become a target. Her home is now constantly surveilled by drones, she said.

María Nela Prada, in the powerful position of minister to the President –the righthand advisor to the country’s highest leader– is in charge of the negotiations over the census that involve representatives from across the entire country, and that only Camacho’s forces refuse to join. She is from Santa Cruz and her family is “prominent,” and both she and her family received the same threats of death and burning as Felipa Montenegro.

Do fascists resign?

In the first hours of Camacho’s shutdown with no declared end, Julio Pablo Taborga, a worker and father of four, was beaten to death. The death toll rose to four by today, including one killed in a fight between competing paramilitary bands. Violence is the Right’s main currency. They commit the major part of the attacks, and any deaths that occur can be turned to their favor by the producers of slanderous journalism. A right-wing journalist was pummeled by inhabitants of a working-class community due to the disinformation broadcast by his employer, and the national government strongly condemned that act.

Yesterday, Camacho’s forces camped outside the government television station in Santa Cruz and threatened to repeat what the Right had done in 2019 in La Paz: drive journalists out of “Bolivia TV” with violence in order to take it over. In that year, Camacho and his allies oversaw the beating and killing of journalists who challenged the coup.

Two weeks into the catastrophic shutdown, when Camacho was losing his ability to maintain the work stoppage, he unleashed all-out violence against the population of Buena Vista, 77 miles distant from the city. The Right is seeking deaths. The police were hard-pressed and in fact unable to prevent paramilitaries from overwhelming the neighbors’ line of defense mounted in Buena Vista. In the midst of that chaos, the people of Buena Vista somehow avoided fatalities. Police reinforcements were sent in, but their access was systematically blocked by Camacho’s shock troops.

Whether or not this stated coup attempt grows stronger, the Right is facing a majority of workers and campesinos who are committed to justice, and who are strategizing nationally to take the defense of Bolivian socialism into their own hands. The political identity of the city of Santa Cruz –where 70% of the people are working-class migrants– is losing its character as a bastion of the Bolivian Right.

Cindy Forster, Chiapas Support Committee, Los Angeles. Latin American and Caribbean Studies professor — for citations, please send an email to [email protected]

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – US