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Friday 25 October 2019

Bolivia, democracy and Corbyn: It's not pretty

On Tuesday morning at a quarter to eleven People’s Momentum tweeted out a three raised fist emoji salute to the re-election of Evo Morales in Bolivia in the first round of the Presidential election.

“Congratulations to Evo Morales who looks set to win his reelection bid outright in the first round of voting!”, they wrote.

In prematurely claiming victory Momentum echoed Cuba and Venezuela’s Presidents. The Jeremy Corbyn supporters club would have known that the circumstances of a supposed Morales first round win that avoids a runoff election in December is, to put it mildly, questionable. The OAS, United Nations and the EU are among those who’ve raised eyebrows. They would also have known that the very candidacy of Morales, rather than of someone else from his party, MAS, is outright denial of the people’s will in a 2016 referendum on term limits.

Morales claimed he lost that referendum because a soapish scandal had erupted just before the vote involving a supposed girlfriend plus ‘love child’ plus corruption. He said that he didn’t want to run again but "I can't disappoint my people" and he had to follow his “destiny” of being president. He got a pliant Supreme Court to invent the novel idea that term limits for politicians is a breach of human rights.

Momentum knew all that but they tweeted out a rote ‘solidarity’ statement with added emojis anyway. The message being that Momentum thinks that undemocratic behaviour is fine if it comes from someone waving a red flag?

Reversing the referendum result in order to stand again is the big reason why Morales’ could be forced to the second round by Carlos Mesa. Despite MAS controlling most of Bolivia’s media what has now happened is that Morales’ support has dropped all around Bolivia, ending regional polarisations, and the left who opposed Morales over the referendum voted for his ‘neoliberal’ opponent. And this is also despite that, as Vanderbilt University Bolivia expert Carwil Bjork-James points out, “right-wing politics remains a minority tendency within Bolivia”. Centre-left Mesa embraced the government’s core poverty programs and cultivated alliances with left, grassroots, and environmental dissidents. He told NPR "I recognise the positive things" that Morales has brought to Bolivia. That’s liberal democracy for you at work right there. That’s the same shifting of the Overton Window leftwards that Labour achieved with the NHS.

As numerous commentators have pointed out if Morales had not decided to stand again he would have bowed out a hero. An Indigenous President who did reduce poverty and do other good works.

Instead we have a massive propaganda operation online about mythical US interference, Evo talking about a coup and his Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, dangerously talking about a fight between q'aras (whites) against Indiegnous people. As journalist Andrés Cañizalez has noted, it is as if the survival in power of Maduro “is an example for [Nicaragua’s] Ortega and Evo, for now, to simply throw away institutionality, knowing that there will be no consequences.”

But it’s not just Momentum at ease with all this, it’s Labour’s Leader as well.

Corbyn met García Linera in London in February. His subsequent tweet bizarrely claimed that Bolivia, Mexico and Uruguay “are already playing an important role in mediating a negotiated political solution in Venezuela.” This is complete nonsense (and note that Labour has never once acknowledged the EU’s role in pushing Venezuela negotiations) but it’s also uncritical support after Morales has defied the people’s will that he should retire.

When he attended the inauguration of his friend Mexican President Lopez Obrador last December he gave an interview to the left-wing conspiracist Matt Kennard in which he heaped praise on Morales. They later met in Mexico - here's a picture of Seumas Milne filming the encounter. Same month he gave Morales his backing in a statement to ‘Labour Friends of Progressive Latin America.’ Not even a hint of concern about Morales’ undemocratic behaviour.

Tellingly Corbyn has praised “street movements” like MAS as they “consider themselves less election-fighting machines than revolutionary upswells; multitudes that primarily exercise power not through the legislature but through the charismatic influence of their leaders and by taking to the streets to give voice to popular anger”.

This is not how the left wing Latin Americans who Corbyn never speaks with see it. Morales created “a vertical movement with fragile roots that are entirely dependent on a single individual and heavy subsidies” argues Democracia Abierta. “If the cases of Brazil and Venezuela are any indication, we should have learned that cult of personality, a sin so common to the Latin American left, tends to ricochet in the opposite direction.”

But we already know from Venezuela that Corbyn and others never learn anything, never leave their safe space and ignore left or civic or institutional voices that counter their rose tinted view of Latin American “revolutionary upswells”. Chavez’s famed ‘gains for the poor’ were already reversing when Corbyn (and Abbott and Jones et al) were still visiting. But they wouldn’t have known this because they never spoke to anyone outside the Potemkin Village. If they had they’d have learned that the Cuban supported health programme they all praised was a complete wreck. If they’d spoken to the Labour movement independent of the government they’d have known that Chavez and Maduro were repressing it. Years later when Maduro went after a Parliament dominated by opposition MPs elected by Venezuelans, many of them elected from barrios, the silence was deafening.

Heck, Corbyn met the socialist former Chilean President Michele Bachelet (now UN human rights chief) a year ago and rather than talk about human rights - her job - Labour tweeted that they’d be talking about workers rights in the EU. Corbyn’s account decided to use the opportunity to tweet a boast about how Saint Jez had opposed Pinochet.

Continuing the theme of existing in a 1970s bubble, back in May Corbyn gave a speech to a Marxist gathering in a Welsh valley called El Sueño Existe, organised by his old friend the Marxist lecturer Dr Francisco Dominquez. In his jaw dropping speech Corbyn did talk at length about human rights and refugees - but only in the context of Trump. There was not one single mention of Venezuela, the biggest refugee crisis in Latin America’s history, or Nicaragua, which he spoke about in the House of Commons 210 times.

If you wanted a crystal clear example of Corbyn’s tenuous connection to both human rights and democracy in Latin America that speech is it.

Evo Morales @ the UN: "as we say in Bolivia, the only way is unity before adversity, today we suffer the effects of climate change throughout the planet, the life of our mother earth is at serious risk."

Hegemony is all

In the second par of their tweet Momentum claim that:

“[Morales’] programme of renationalising key natural resources whilst drastically reducing poverty rates has led to a period of great stability for millions of Bolivians.”

‘Stability’ has clearly ended but the ignorant faith in MAS economic policy is another telling example of how waving a red flag ends any scrutiny of the smallprint for much of the left.

After the referendum issue it was differences in how to grow the economy that also drove down Morales’ vote. The crisis over Bolivia’s fires has driven this to the fore.

Those fires destroyed 6m hectares, an area as big as Brazil’s fires destroyed, a country eight times as big. They killed seven volunteer firefighters. They were ended by joyfully received rain, not Evo’s actions. The region’s Indigenous organisations (including Ecuador’s, who Western lefties have been happily plugging of late) blamed both Morales and Bolsonardo, as have Latin American environmental NGOs. For those who think this is all a Western MSM plot protests about the government’s inaction on the fires by Indigenous Bolivians were reported by Ruptly. The government's response was objectively pathetic; From making a fetish of not accepting international aid, then accepting it from France, from boosting about a ‘Supertanker’ that had been brought in by a Bolivian pilot called Jose Raul Bolivar Montalvo, not government, through trying to blame the spread of the fires on Brazil, through attacking “corporate greenwashing groups like Extinction Rebellion" who supported protests about the fires, through Bolivian-funded network TeleSUR running with “Socialism vs Facism: The Amazon fire.”

Bolivians turned all this into black comedy: 'How bad do we have to be that we trust more on Leonardo Dicaprio saving us than in our president.'

Morales’ government has passed four laws on forests and land that have mostly benefited big land owners. Scientists and ecologists have pinned the blame for the scale of the fires on those four legal changes, particularly a Morales’ degree just before the fires started in August. Pablo Solon, the former Bolivian ambassador to the UN and now a fierce Morales’ critic, says damningly: “The president gives speeches at international meetings in defence of Pachamama, the Mother Earth revered by the indigenous people of the Andes, while in Bolivia the rights of Mother Earth are violated."

Despite all the worthy grandiloquence nine years ago, according to Goldsmith’s political economist Jeffery R. Webber, MAS opted for an "agri-capital-state alliance" that "has consolidated agribusiness capital, both national and foreign, in the soy sector, integrating the rich peasants in a subordinate manner." Activists have claimed that Morales also used the opening up of land to agriculture “to move members of his base to electoral districts he might otherwise lose.”

What is amazing about the left’s unquestioning embrace of Morales is that Vice President García Linera said five years ago that the government plan was to massively increase the land farmed by large businesses. To underscore their actual priorities, right at the height of the fires, he and Morales rubbed Bolivians faces in the environmental destruction by promoting a massive agricultural deal with China.

García Linera calls this turn to agribusiness “the embrace of the adversary”, citing Gramsci he said that that’s an essential part of maintaining hegemony.

Corbyn, Momentum and the left in general by unquestioningly supporting Evo Morales are promoting the same policies in Bolivia that they shun in Brazil. And over Bolivia right now they are demonstrating in real time their conditional relationship with democracy.


The headline is a play on a piece I wrote in August 2015 titled Corbyn and Ukraine: it's not pretty.

For updates on Bolivia in English follow @Action4Bolivia (Bolivian folks in the UK) and @RiosDePie (Bolivian civil society)

This is the long version of this piece published with CapX.