By Simon Elliott
Dozens of protesters gathered Wednesday, February 5th outside of the Springfield offices of Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Ed Markey to denounce the November 10th coup in Bolivia and ongoing US sanctions against Venezuela. The crowd, bearing signs with messages such as “End US Imperialism in Latin America” and “Hands Off Venezuela,” listened to a series of speeches before proceeding into the building’s lobby. After waiting–and chanting–in the lobby, and placing a call to Senator Warren’s Boston office, the Springfield office staff finally agreed to meet with a small delegation to receive a letter addressed to the Senator. The letter, signed by more than seventy residents and organizations, asked Senator Warren to issue a public statement strongly condemning the coup in Bolivia and any further US interference in Bolivian democratic processes, and to call for an immediate end to US sanctions against Venezuela—all of which, at the time of publication, she has failed to do.
The Wednesday rally, organized by the Bolivia Solidarity Committee of Western Massachusetts and the Latin American Solidarity Coalition of Western Massachusetts together with the Democratic Socialists of America, the Resistance Center, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, and other organizations and individuals, was one event in a series of recent actions by local activists regarding Latin America.
The Latin American Solidarity Coalition (LASC), formerly the Venezuela Solidarity Coalition, has organized rallies, film showings and talks in response to the failed coup attempt led by Juan Guaidó and his right-wing and international allies against the government of President Nicolás Maduro, as previously reported by The Shoestring.
The US foreign policy establishment has long sought regime change in Venezuela, and the 2019 failed coup is not the first US-backed attempt aimed at doing so since the 1998 election of the late President Hugo Chávez, whose Bolivarian Revolution has long resisted US influence in Latin America and supported other left-popular movements across the region in doing the same.
Venezuela is a country rich in natural resources. It leads the world in proven crude oil reserves, and has vast mineral reserves. During his presidency, Chávez nationalized oil production, which accounts for nearly 99% of Venezuela’s export earnings. In turn, his government used the income earned from the state oil company, the PDVSA, to heavily invest in social programs, reducing poverty by more than a third and extreme poverty by more than 57%. The US has spent billions of dollars—$656 million from 2017 to 2019 alone—on attempts to undermine the Venezuelan economy and political systems. This has included training for opposition leaders, direct funding to far right-wing parties, and a plan to convert aid workers into special operations forces—all in an effort to remove Chávez, and now Maduro, from power.
The bipartisan drive to implement regime change in Venezuela has been more apparent than ever during this past week, when Guaidó—who is no longer the leader of the National Assembly, the position he used to justify his claim to the Presidency—received a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans alike at Trump’s most recent State of the Union, and held a press conference with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi the following day.
One aim of Wednesday’s rally in Springfield was to highlight the human costs of US sanctions against Venezuela. In 2004, the Bush administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela, which the Obama administration increased in 2015. Sanctions were increased even further by the Trump administration, heavily restricting Venezuela’s access to the international market and to billions of dollars of its own assets held abroad, triggering dire food and medicine shortages. A report from the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) found that US sanctions were responsible for the death of more than 40,000 Venezuelans from 2017-2018. As Hector Figarella said in his speech last Wednesday, “sanctions are a form of warfare. You might not be dropping bombs, but you might as well be dropping bombs, because sanctions are deadly. They are aimed at the most vulnerable members of the targeted population.”
Even amid mounting pressure from constituents on Senator Warren and Senator Markey to call for an immediate end to the sanctions, both Democratic Senators continue to support their use.
Another aim of last Wednesday’s protest was to condemn the November 10th, 2019 coup that removed Evo Morales and his party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, or MAS), from power in Bolivia and has led to a wave of persecution, massacres, injuries, and arrests in the following months.
On October 20th, in the first round of presidential elections, Morales won over 10 percent of the electorate more than the second-place finisher, former president Carlos Mesa. The following day, the Organization of American States (OAS)—an organization that receives 60% of its budget from the US—issued a brief press release that cast doubts over the integrity of the election results. The OAS claims of irregularities were quickly discredited by numerous sources, including the CEPR. The press release, however, had already served its purpose.
Fascist groups quickly mobilized to take advantage of the uncertainty, unleashing a wave of violence across the country. They targeted indigenous leaders and MAS party officials such as Patricia Arce, the Mayor of Vinto, who was attacked and dragged through the street by masked figures that drenched her in red paint and forcibly cut her hair. The campaign of racist violence continued for weeks, as mobs burned the indigenous flag of Bolivia, the Wiphala, and defecting police officers ripped the flag from their uniforms and cut it to pieces.
On November 10th, in response to the unabating violence and threats against the families of MAS officials, police and military defections, and a video released by the head of the Bolivian Armed Forces—who was trained at the infamous School of the Americas—demanding Morales’ resignation, Evo Morales resigned the presidency and fled to safety in Mexico. That same day, one of the coup leaders, Luis Fernando Camacho, knelt in front of a Bible in the presidential palace as a pastor and proclaimed: “Pachamama [the Andean Mother Earth Spirit] will never return to the palace…Bolivia belongs to Christ.” On November 12th, Jeanine Áñez, a far-right former Senator, declared herself President in a parliamentary session that did not meet quorum. The majority party–MAS–was largely absent due to the threat of violence and persecution directed against them.
Soon after taking power, the coup government held show trials of former ministers of Morales’ government, granted immunity to the military, threatened journalists with sedition charges, and massacred peaceful protesters.
The Áñez government reached an agreement with the MAS for new elections set for May 3rd. There are serious concerns as to the conditions under which the elections will be held. As Ollie Vargas reports, not only did the coup government bring fake charges against the MAS President and Vice-presidential candidates; in addition, the technical organization of the elections is being conducted in partnership with the OAS, who played a crucial role in the coup, and USAID—who Morales had previously expelled from the country.
Bolivia, like Venezuela, has a wealth of mineral resources, including lithium, which has been heavily sought after in recent years due to its application in electric car batteries. Morales, like Chávez in Venezuela, moved to partially nationalize Bolivian mining interests, using the proceeds to fund social development across the country. At the end of Morales’ 13-year tenure, Bolivia had sustained the highest per capita GDP growth in South America, and had reduced poverty by 25% and extreme poverty by more than 22%.
Prior to last Wednesday’s rally, the Bolivia Solidarity Committee had succeeded in their demands for Congressman Jim McGovern and Senator Markey to both publicly condemn the coup and call for coming elections to be free and fair—though Markey qualified his condemnation, tweeting his concern for human rights violations after an “apparent” coup.
Senator Warren, after months of silence, responded to the pending rally by emailing a statement to the Committee only hours before. The statement read: “[Senator Warren] believes that when the military intervenes in a transfer of power, that is dangerous for democracy and is indicative of a coup.” While this carefully worded statement is a step forward for the Senator, it falls well short of an unequivocal denunciation of the coup and the coup government. Senator Warren’s office has yet to make the statement public, as requested via email and in person during Wednesday’s rally.
Senator Warren’s current positions on Bolivia and Venezuela stand in stark contrast to the progressive reputation that she has worked hard to develop as a Senator and presidential candidate. In the context of Warren’s record of unwavering support for US militarism, however, these positions become no longer surprising. As a Senator, she voted twice to increase Trump’s military budget, and fostered a healthy relationship with defense contractors in Massachusetts, including serving on a bipartisan committee to increase military spending in the state. As a presidential candidate, Warren released a stunning list of highly interventionist foreign policy advisers, and said in an eye-opening interview that she agreed with the Trump administration’s recognition of Guaidó and echoed her support for sanctions against Venezuela.
It remains to be seen whether the combination of sustained pressure from constituents in Western Massachusetts and her seemingly fading presidential aspirations will help change Senator’s Warren’s stance on US imperialism and intervention in Latin America.
The Bolivia Solidarity Committee continues to plan actions across the region to challenge the bipartisan consensus that calls fascist, racist, and reactionary coups “democracy” and that calls murderous sanctions “diplomacy.”