The Brasília Connection

Forrest Hylton

When the coup that overthrew Evo Morales in 2019 brought an unknown senator and political newcomer, Jeanine Áñez, to the Bolivian presidency, the Brazilian government was the first to offer official recognition. In the run up to the coup, one of the leading plotters, Fernando ‘Macho’ Camacho, currently the governor of Santa Cruz, met with Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo.

Last week, an Argentinian reporter uncovered documentary evidence – and a Bolivian diplomatic source – apparently confirming that Bolsonaro and Áñez met in person in the days and months following the coup. There are no officially registered visits, only flight logs. ‘I met her once,’ the Brazilian president said on state television last year. ‘She’s a nice person and in jail now. You know what they accuse her of? Anti-democratic acts.’ Bolsonaro might well be worried about his (and his sons’) future if Lula returns to power in Brazil later this year, given the magnitude and multiplicity of crimes he has committed in office. In the same broadcast, he railed at Lula and the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) for supporting Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), as if there were something sinister about recognising the winners of democratic elections.

When Bolivian voters returned MAS to power in October 2020, Brazil was the last major country to recognise the new president, Luis Arce. Áñez and several of her ministers were arrested last March. Not for ‘anti-democratic acts’ in general, but specifically for the massacre of 33 unarmed demonstrators, many of them of indigenous descent, in Sacaba (near Cochabamba) on 15 November 2019 and in Senkata (an area of El Alto) four days later.

Morales had been overthrown on 10 November. On 11 November, according to flight tracking websites, the Bolivian presidential jet (tail number FAB001) was in Brazil, flying from São Paulo to Brasília. On 12 November, Áñez was sworn in as president of Bolivia. On 13 November, Bolsonaro recognised her government. An executive decree giving impunity to the military in the use of force against civilians was made public on 16 November, the day after the Sacaba massacre, though it was dated the 14th.

Añez was always a figurehead rather than a leader and, in her inexperience, was initially left alone holding the bag (along with a handful of inconsequential ministers). She has been in jail for nearly a year awaiting trial for genocide, sedition, conspiracy and terrorism. A second trial, in which Añez, the military high command and the national police chief are charged with the unconstitutional transfer of power, was supposed to begin last week. So far it has not, but it appears set to start on 10 February.

The former minister of government, Arturo Murillo, who once wielded real repressive power, persecuting MAS politicians and supporters, has been in custody in the US on money laundering charges since May 2021. According to the US Justice Department, Murillo and associates used a company called Bravo Tactical Solutions in Miami to buy tear gas and riot gear from a Brazilian company called Cóndor. The Bolivian defence minister, Luis Fernando López, signed the contracts, while Bravo Tactical allegedly paid kickbacks to several government officials to win them. Murillo signed a plea agreement with the DoJ and will be sentenced in February. López is currently in hiding in Brazil.

Evo Morales has been talking about a new Operation Condor; his rhetoric is typically overheated. General Juan José Torres, the radical nationalist former president of Bolivia, was murdered in exile in Buenos Aires in 1976. Morales, on the other hand, after a brief and relatively uneventful stint in Mexico and Argentina, is back in Bolivia preparing to run for president yet again (a move that weakens and divides the current government, as even Morales’s former vice president, a stalwart loyalist, admits, diminishing the figure of President Arce, who has mostly been missing in action). Yet Morales’s historical analogy is valid up to a point. The armed conspiracy to keep him and MAS out of power was transnational, and co-ordinated with Bolsonaro’s Brazil (with the US playing a more indirect role).

The extent of the Brazilian involvement remains an open question. FlightAware records reveal FAB001 making repeated journeys to Brazil between 11 November 2019 and December 2020; the last trip appears to have been part of an arms deal by the Ministry of Defence. What might the purpose of the first trip have been, and who ordered it? Did Añez meet Bolsonaro, and if so, what did they discuss? Why weren’t any of the visits officially registered? Añez wrote to Bolsonaro demanding he produce specific evidence to prove that they met, and claimed to have no knowledge of the flights in question.

After the 2019 coup, as in 1980 and 2003, national popular forces ultimately prevailed over far rightwing repression: this capacity for collective, democratic action makes Bolivia politically unique. Governing, however, is another matter, and so far Arce has proven ineffectual, while MAS is internally split between Morales’ followers and those who agree with Vice-President David Choquehuanca and the speaker of the Senate, Andrónico Rodríguez, that there needs to be a renewal of leadership.

Bolivia has witnessed significant protests against both vaccination and restrictions. The government was forced to retract its vaccine passport requirement for public buildings, but that didn’t prevent clashes between protesters and police, notably in El Alto, which MAS has had difficulty governing. Like rightwing forces elsewhere, Camacho and the far right in Santa Cruz, golpistas one and all, have found in the pandemic, and the Arce government’s response to it, their wedge issue.

Bolsonaristas quickly removed the video in which their leader mentioned his meeting with Añez from circulation in social media. Last week it was posted in one of Bolivia’s leading dailies. Although the story is unlikely to disappear, since Bolivia’s attorney general has pledged to investigate it, it’s unclear how much of the not-so-secret Brasília connection can be unearthed as long as Bolsonaro is in power.