In the early hours of Wednesday, 21 October, as the official vote count in Bolivia first began to signal victory for Luis Arce and the Movement Towards Socialism, airport workers across the country went on strike. Wages were two months overdue, and “for two years,” said union organizer Alvaro Guzmán, “they have refused to recognize us as workers covered by the general labour law,” denying them rights to basic benefits and pensions for retirement. Planes were to stay on the ground until a settlement had been reached.
Mayhem at the El Alto International Airport, as news of the strike rippled fast through the line for the 6:25 flight to Santa Cruz. Delegation after delegation of international observers — from the technicians of the OAS to the members of the Mercosur Parliament — were all set to depart home on that single flight. As screens lit up with cancellations, delegates punched frantic calls to travel agents and personal assistants, pleading: What’s the quickest way out of here? Should we drive to Chile? Or Peru? We came to observe an election; no one said anything about a damn strike.
For the last five years, we have been sold a story of democracy in global decline. Authoritarians are riding a wave of populist rage; fascism lurks around the corner. Bolivia is no exception. Less than one year ago, the right-wing opposition plotted to oust President Evo Morales from office on trumped up charges of fraud, inspiring months of massacres, reprisals, and intensified repression at the hands of a de facto government.
But on 18 October, the people of Bolivia turned this tide, weathering threats of violence and a deadly virus to cast their ballot and return the MAS to power. The Bolivian case thus presents a critical question for citizens and the political scientists that strain to study them. How did the people of Bolivia succeed, against such impossible odds, to reverse the slide into authoritarian rule?
The Democracy Industry — that loose agglomeration of NGOs, pundits, and human rights advocates that patrol the world in service of ‘good governance’ — arrived at an answer quickly: this was a triumph of democracy. According to this account, it was the ideal of democracy that survived this dark period in Bolivian history, a guiding light that shone above the factional conflict on the ground. And when election day finally arrived, the Bolivian people cast their sacred ballots, and the force of the democratic will simply thrust the fascists from power.
This is a convenient story at a critical hour, with the build-up to the US Presidential election on 3 November. Perhaps the Bolivian example will lead the way, the Democracy Industry proclaims, for the United States to remove the shackles of authoritarian rule through the ballet box. Democracy can triumph there, too: all you have to do is vote.
The problem with this account is that it’s wrong — not only inaccurate in its facts, but also misleading in its conceptual understanding of the fight against fascism. It elevates democracy to the status of an ontological universal, ignoring the material field of conflict that defines it. It centres election day as the decisive moment in a democratic politics, encouraging citizens to behave as spectators to the hallowed vote count. And it locates power in the ballot box, overlooking the role that workers, unions, and their strikes can play in shifting the course of political history.
Back in Bolivia, trade unions were central to the restoration of the country’s democracy. The de facto government did not abandon power because the great voice of the ballot box commanded them to do so. On the contrary, coup president Jeanine Áñez pushed time and again to delay the elections in an effort to consolidate power and stave off the return of the MAS. It was only through rolling strikes and blockades by workers across the country that Áñez conceded to hold an election in October.
Indeed, the threat of trade union mobilization was the backbone of the democratic process all the way through to its finish. “The moment [Áñez] tried to carry out fraud is the moment Bolivia lifts its pause on protests and we take power,” said Orlando Gutierrez, Secretary of the Union Federation of Mining Workers of Bolivia (FSTMB). Within days of MAS’s victory, Gutierrez was targeted and murdered by right-wing fascists — a tragic monument to the critical role that he and the FSTMB played in delivering democracy’s triumph on 18 October.
The forces of reaction know this well. The promise of a left-wing government is met time and again with the threat of capital strike. Its power cannot be underestimated: How many popular leaders, movements, and governments have been brought down by the threat of disinvestment, the flight of capital to friendlier jurisdictions?
The lesson is ours to learn. Authoritarians — especially authoritarians in Latin America — rely on their promise of stability, prosperity, and growth. It is thus workers, not voters, that hold the key source of leverage against them. It is workers, not voters, that can unite a country against their false promises. And it is workers, not voters, that can guard the institutions of democracy and demand that the expression of their popular will in the form of elections is respected, implemented, and delivered to them.
This is what Bolivia’s historic elections can teach us about the defence of democracy around the world. “Democracy” did not “triumph” — the workers of Bolivia brought down a coup government, secured a day for legitimate elections, and mobilize communities across the country to put Luis Arce into the presidency.
Yet, their fight is far from over. Bolivia has suffered one of the worst economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic of any country around the world. And as the airport strike revealed, payments to public sector workers are delinquent, and basic protections overdue.
But this is the real work of democracy — not the spectacle of election day, but the conflict that determines the day after. Back at the El Alto airport, international observers learned this lesson the hard way. With a fresh electoral mandate delivered to the MAS, the workers of the AASANA union — 1,200 airport controllers across 39 airports — sent their message: our vote is only as good as the power it grants us; your government is only as good as the power we grant you in return.