Bolivian coup leader Luis Fernando Camacho is a far-right multi-millionaire who arose from fascist movements in the Santa Cruz region, where the US has encouraged separatism. He has courted support from Colombia, Brazil, and the Venezuela coup regime.
The squalid US-backed fanatics of the Bolivian right ransack the house of the country’s elected president, Evo Morales. And the havoc is just beginning. Let no one call them “pro-democracy.”
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) November 11, 2019
Following the forced departure of Morales, coup leaders arrested the president and vice president of the government’s electoral body, and forced the organization’s other officials to resign. Camacho’s followers proceeded to burn Wiphala flags that symbolized the country’s Indigenous population and the plurinational vision of Morales.
The Organization of American States, a pro-US organization founded by Washington during the Cold War as an alliance of right-wing anti-communist countries in Latin America, helped rubber stamp the Bolivian coup. It called for new elections, claiming there were numerous irregularities in the October 20 vote, without citing any evidence. Then the OAS remained silent as Morales was overthrown by his military and his party’s officials were attacked and violently forced to resign.
The day after, the Donald Trump White House enthusiastically praised the coup, trumpeting it as a “significant moment for democracy,” and a “strong signal to the illegitimate regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.”
Emerging from the shadows to lead a violent far-right putsch
While Carlos Mesa timidly condemned the opposition’s violence, Camacho egged it on, ignoring calls for an international audit of the election and emphasizing his maximalist demand to purge all supporters of Morales from government. He was the true face of the opposition, concealed for months behind the moderate figure of Mesa.
A 40-year-old multi-millionaire businessman from the separatist stronghold of Santa Cruz, Camacho has never run for office. Like Venezuelan coup leader Juan Guaidó, whom more than 80 percent of Venezuelans had never heard of until the US government anointed him as supposed “president,” Camacho was an obscure figure until the coup attempt in Bolivia hit its stride.
He first created his Twitter account on May 27, 2019. For months, his tweets went ignored, generating no more than three or four retweets and likes. Before the election, Camacho did not have a Wikipedia article, and there were few media profiles on him in Spanish- or English-language media.
Camacho issued a call for a strike on July 9, posting videos on Twitter that got just over 20 views. The goal of the strike was to try to force the resignation of Bolivian government’s electoral organ the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). In other words, Camacho was pressuring the government’s electoral authorities to step down more than three months before the presidential election.
It was not until after the election that Camacho was thrust into the limelight and transformed into a celebrity by corporate media conglomerates like the local right-wing network Unitel, Telemundo, and CNN en Español.
All of a sudden, Camacho’s tweets calling for Morales to resign were lighting up with thousands of retweets. The coup machinery had been activated.
Mainstream outlets like the New York Times and Reuters followed by anointing the unelected Camacho as the “leader” of Bolivia’s opposition. But even as he lapped up international attention, key portions of the far-right activist’s background were omitted.
Left unmentioned were Camacho’s deep and well-established connections to Christian extremist paramilitaries notorious for racist violence and local business cartels, as well as the right-wing governments across the region.
It was in the fascist paramilitaries and separatist atmosphere of Santa Cruz where Camacho’s politics were formed, and where the ideological contours of the coup had been defined.
Cadre of a Francoist-style fascist paramilitary
Luis Fernando Camacho was groomed by the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, or Santa Cruz Youth Union (UJC), a fascist paramilitary organization that has been linked to assassination plots against Morales. The group is notorious for assaulting leftists, Indigenous peasants, and journalists, all while espousing a deeply racist, homophobic ideology.
Since Morales entered office in 2006, the UJC has campaigned to separate from a country its members believed had been overtaken by a Satanic Indigenous mass.
The UJC is the Bolivian equivalent of Spain’s Falange, India’s Hindu supremacist RSS, and Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov battalion. Its symbol is a green cross that bears strong similarities to logos of fascist movements across the West.
And its members are known to launch into Nazi-style sieg heil salutes.
Here is another video posted by Bolivia’s fascist opposition Santa Cruz Youth Union.
Coup leader Luis Fernando Camacho @LuisFerCamachoV previously helped lead this sieg-heiling group.
These are the people who overthrew elected President Evo Morales. https://t.co/gFMyfjsi2p pic.twitter.com/GvvMfL21UZ
— The Grayzone (@GrayzoneProject) November 12, 2019
Even the US embassy in Bolivia has described UJC members as “racist” and “militant,” noting that they “have frequently attacked pro-MAS/government people and installations.”
After journalist Benjamin Dangl visited with UJC members in 2007, he described them as the “brass knuckles” of the Santa Cruz separatist movement. “The Unión Juvenil has been known to beat and whip campesinos marching for gas nationalization, throw rocks at students organizing against autonomy, toss molotov cocktails at the state television station, and brutally assault members of the landless movement struggling against land monopolies,” Dangl wrote.
“When we have to defend our culture by force, we will,” a UJC leader told Dangl. “The defense of liberty is more important than life.”
Camacho was elected as vice president of the UJC in 2002, when he was just 23 years old. He left the organization two years later to build his family’s business empire and rise through the ranks of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee. It was in that organization that he was taken under the wing of one of the separatist movement’s most powerful figures, a Bolivian-Croatian oligarch named Branko Marinkovic.
In August, Camacho tweeted a photo with his “great friend,” Marinkovic. This friendship was crucial to establishing the rightist activist’s credentials and forging the basis of the coup that would take form three months later.
Hoy cumple años un gran líder cruceño y expresidente del Comité pro Santa Cruz pero todo un gran amigo, Branko Marinkovic, quien entregó todo, su libertad y su vida, por su pueblo. pic.twitter.com/uVzNrgH2pI
— Luis Fernando Camacho (@LuisFerCamachoV) August 21, 2019
Camacho’s Croatian godfather and separatist powerbroker
Branko Marinkovic is a major landowner who ramped up his support for the right-wing opposition after some of his land was nationalized by the Evo Morales government. As chairman of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee, he oversaw the operations of the main engine of separatism in Bolivia.
In a 2008 letter to Marinkovic, the International Federation for Human Rights denounced the committee as an “actor and promoter of racism and violence in Bolivia.”
The human rights group added that it “condemn[ed] the attitude and secessionist, unionist and racist discourses as well as the calls for military disobedience of which the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee for is one of the main promoters.”
In 2013, journalist Matt Kennard reported that the US government was working closely with the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee to encourage the balkanization of Bolivia and to undermine Morales. “What they [the US] put across was how they could strengthen channels of communication,” the vice president of the committee told Kennard. “The embassy said that they would help us in our communication work and they have a series of publications where they were putting forward their ideas.”
In a 2008 profile on Marinkovic, the New York Times acknowledged the extremist undercurrents of the Santa Cruz separatist movement the oligarch presided over. It described the area as “a bastion of openly xenophobic groups like the Bolivian Socialist Falange, whose hand-in-air salute draws inspiration from the fascist Falange of the former Spanish dictator Franco.”
The Bolivian Socialist Falange was a fascist group that provided safe haven to Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie during the Cold War. A former Gestapo torture expert, Barbie was repurposed by the CIA through its Operation Condor program to help exterminate communism across the continent. (Despite its antiquated name, like the German National Socialists, this far-right extremist group was violently anti-leftist, committed to killing socialists.)
The Bolivian Falange came into power in 1971 when its leader, Gen. Hugo Banzer Suarez, ousted the leftist government of Gen. Juan Jose Torres Gonzales. The government of Gonzales had infuriated business leaders by nationalizing industries and antagonized Washington by ousting the Peace Corps, which it viewed as an instrument of CIA penetration. The Nixon administration immediately welcomed Banzer with open arms and courted him as a key bulwark against the spread of socialism in the region. (An especially ironic 1973 dispatch appears on Wikileaks showing Secretary of State Henry Kissinger thanking Banzer for congratulating him on his Nobel Peace Prize).
The movement’s putschist legacy persevered during the Morales era through organizations like the UJC and figures such as Marinkovic and Camacho.
The Times noted that Marinkovic also supported the activities of the UJC, describing the fascist group as “a quasi-independent arm of the committee led by Mr. Marinkovic.” A member of the UJC board told the US newspaper of record in an interview, “We will protect Branko with our own lives.”
Marinkovic has espoused the kind of Christian nationalist rhetoric familiar to the far-right organizations of Santa Cruz, calling, for instance, for a “crusade for the truth” and insisting that God is on his side.
The oligarch’s family hails from Croatia, where he has dual citizenship. Marinkovic has long been dogged by rumors that his family members were involved in the country’s powerful fascist Ustashe movement.
The Ustashe collaborated openly with Nazi German occupiers during World War Two. Their successors returned to power after Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia – a former socialist country that was intentionally balkanized in a NATO war, much in the same way that Marinkovic hoped Bolivia would be.
Marinkovic denies that his family was part of the Ustashe. He claimed in an interview with the New York Times that his father fought against the Nazis.
But even some of his sympathizers are skeptical. A Balkan analyst from the private intelligence firm Stratfor, which works closely with the US government and is popularly known as the “shadow CIA,” produced a rough background profile on Marinkovic, speculating, “Still don’t know his full story, but I would bet a lot of $$$ that this dude’s parents are 1st gen (his name is too Slavic) and that they were Ustashe (read: Nazi) sympathizers fleeing Tito’s Communists after WWI.”
The Stratfor analyst excerpted a 2006 article by journalist Christian Parenti, who had visited Marinkovic at his ranch in Santa Cruz. Evo Morales’ “land reform could lead to civil war,” Marinkovic warned Parenti in the Texas-accented English he picked up while studying at the University of Texas, Houston.
Today, Marinkovic is an ardent supporter of Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, whose only complaint about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was that he “didn’t kill enough.”
Marinkovic is also a public admirer of Venezuela’s far-right opposition. “Todos somos Leopoldo” — “we are all Leopoldo,” he tweeted in support of Leopoldo López, who has been involved in numerous coup attempts against Venezuela’s elected leftist government.
While Marinkovic denied any role in armed militant activity in his interview with Parenti, he was accused in 2008 of playing a central role in an attempt to assassinate Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism party allies.
He told the New York Times less than two years before the plot developed, “If there is no legitimate international mediation in our crisis, there is going to be confrontation. And unfortunately, it is going to be bloody and painful for all Bolivians.”
An assassination plot links Bolivia’s right to international fascists
In April 2009, a special unit of the Bolivian security services barged into a luxury hotel room and cut down three men who were said to be involved in a plot to kill Evo Morales. Two others remained on the loose. Four of the alleged conspirators had Hungarian or Croatian roots and ties to rightist politics in eastern Europe, while another was a right-wing Irishman, Michael Dwyer, who had only arrived in Santa Cruz six months before.