The Impact of Chato Peredo, “Che’s Last Soldier,” on the MAS Party in Bolivia

Chato Peredo with Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez and Néstor Kirchner. Photo by Marco Recalde.

The current form of the MAS in Bolivia owes much to Osvaldo “Chato” Peredo. The Movimiento al Socialismo is not just a party, but a social movement and political instrument. Its current version, under the leadership of Luis Arce, is in many ways different from that of the first period led by Evo Morales. Much of the self-critique of the party that led up to the October 2020 election was inspired by Chato Peredo.

Known as “Che’s Last Soldier,” Peredo died last year in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. His life was marked by the popular struggles that shook Bolivia throughout decades. He was born on February 4th, 1941 in Beni, in the eastern lowlands of the Oriente, a region of the country that is often considered a bastion of conservatism. But it has also produced many of the country’s important socialist leaders and intellectuals.

Chato was a true revolutionary who, up to the last moment of his life, kept his revolutionary principles firm. Proof of this is that he entrusted his children to have his ashes sent to Cuba so that he can rest next to the legendary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his brothers Inti and Coco Peredo, who died in Che’s guerilla in Ñancahuazú, Bolivia.

Fundamental to Chato’s legacy is that, while he supported the democratic and cultural revolution that emerged around 2005, he was also a harsh critic when the process took a wrong turn. He predicted the crisis of 2016, when Evo Morales ignored a referendum that rejected his right to re-election, and also the 2019 coup that led to Morales’ ouster and fleeing the country. Throughout his last years, Peredo criticized some groups and factions in the MAS party that seemed to want to retain power by any means, despite a loss in legitimacy and democratic accountability.

Peredo was very skeptical of the motivations of Evo’s vice-president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, a self-proclaimed intellectual that Peredo considered “a stumbling block” for the socialist revolution in Bolivia owing to his wish to remain in power by insisting on Evo’s re-election, as Chato believed Linera wanted this so that he could remain as vice-president for as long as possible. Peredo was a councilman for the MAS in Santa Cruz but left the party in 2015 when saw Morales’ entrenchment alongside Linera’s strategy of stifling other wings of the movement and inviting non-revolutionary members who seemed more interested in seeing their businesses thrive under the Morales regime.

“Chato Peredo Organization” of the MAS, in honor of Chato Peredo this week in Montero, Bolivia. Photo by Tamas Peterfalvy.

Peredo felt that the “proceso de cambio” (process of change) of the MAS was failing to become what he called a “historical project” towards real, existing socialism. This would entail serious investment in free, public education and healthcare, for instance. He felt certain groups in the MAS leadership were benefiting economically while most poor people did not see structural change. He was also critical of the lack of independence of the judiciary. In addition, he believed the MAS allowed the reactionary opposition to take the mantle of some legitimate claims, such as that for more autonomy and decentralization.

In 2020, he returned to the ranks of the MAS from which he had withdrawn, because he believed that the principles with which the MAS was created alongside him had resumed their course with the renewed leadership of President Luis Arce and Vice President David Choquehuanca. He supported “Lucho” Arce’s campaign in Santa Cruz, which he trusted, supported, and accompanied because he saw it as a “MAS 2.0 version” that had returned to its initial ideals of working primarily for the poor and lower classes (the majority of Bolivians), given Arce’s success as Morales’ economics minister.

The death of the guerrilla commander Chato, as a result of Covid-19— to which he was exposed while he continued to campaign for Arce despite being a high-risk patient— demonstrates the love for his Bolivian homeland and his desire to redirect the path of the revolution in the country.

The Source of Peredo’s Principles

Chato’s older siblings (Antonio, Emma, Guido “Inti” and Roberto “Coco”) founded the Bolivian Communist Party (PCB) in Trinidad, Beni. Inti and Coco were legendary members of the group of fighters who accompanied Che Guevara in his Bolivian campaign. Coco died in combat on September 26, 1967, a few days before Che was shot by the CIA-supported Bolivian military. Inti was one of the survivors of that experience but was killed years later as he tried to organize a new guerrilla foco in the mountains of Teoponte.

As he recounts in his book We Returned to the Mountains, the militant life of Osvaldo Peredo began when he was 13 years old. “As a child they told me that I could not participate,” said El Chato, and that his first task in the Communist youth was to organize the children of the comrades who were members of the Party. His brother Inti reached a very high level of leadership in the PCB when he was just 24 years old. Along with Coco, Inti participated in actions to support rebel groups in Argentina and Peru. The relations that the PCB maintained with Cuba allowed Inti to meet Che, who after his return from the Congo (and after some time in Europe) decided to undertake a campaign in Bolivia. Chato met Che in Madrid in 1965.

Three years after Che Guevara’s death, Chato suddenly found himself thrust into a leadership position, which he slowly accepted as his historical and moral obligation. He led a rebel group that went into the Teoponte mountains, about three hundred miles north of La Paz, largely comprised of indigenous members. This revolutionary experience was as Quixotic as Che’s in Ñancahuazú. However, Peredo maintained that, despite the military defeat, Teoponte allowed “the rupture of the pact between the military and the indigenous peasanty” at that time, which broke the power of the army in the countryside once and for all. This would prove instrumental decades later, when indigenous campesino members of the main peasants’ union (CSUTCB) joined the MAS en masse.

Chato Peredo with Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano. Photo by Marco Recalde.

Only nine guerrilleros out of sixty-seven survived the Teoponte expedition. However, throughout the experience, the ELN came to be known across the country as a revolutionary movement that was unwilling to lie in its communiqués. Through this, the ELN members, known as elenos, came to acquire an almost mythical reputation for veracity and maintaining a moral stance, unlike some orthodox Marxist strands of the revolutionary left of the time.

The ELN thus fueled Che’s legacy of an ethical form of socialism in Bolivia. Its ability to gather the support of peasants, long seen as reactionary, was a key step for socialism in the country. Later on, coca-growers in the Chapare region would follow the model of militant, socialist organization. One of their leaders in the early late 1990s was Evo Morales.

When Morales eventually came to power, he honored the Teponte fighters by exhuming their bodies and delivering the remains of some of the fallen to their families. In this manner, a long-silent period in Bolivia’s past came alive. It was in La Higuera, where Che was killed, that Chato met Evo. It was then that Chato decided to join the ranks of the nascent ‘political instrument’ that would later become a ‘movement towards socialism.’ Chato considered Morales a true indigenous revolutionary leader, unlike some others like Felipe Quispe or the indianista Garcia Linera.

Evo Morales had arrived there, after participating in the first Ernesto Che Guevara World Meeting in Vallegrande, on the 30th anniversary of his death in 1997. “It was the kick-off for the convergence of the left,” said Peredo, one of the organizers of that event. Chato helped the cocalero leader and actively participated in the process that brought him to power in 2005.

After a highly successful ten years in power, Morales made some strategic mistakes, as Peredo foretold. By listening to Linera’s advice to seek re-election and ignore the results of the 2016 referendum, Evo and the MAS lost much legitimacy, even among former supporters. Other Evo advisors, like the vulgar Machiavellian Juan Ramón Quintana, would further erode the moral basis of the MAS movement by insisting on a monolithic approach to leadership in the party.

Now that Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca are in power, it is imperative that the ethical voice of Peredo continues to be heard. No leader or caudillo of the left, however charismatic or successful, should seek to remain in power at all costs. Dissenting voices within the movement ought not to be silenced. And Chato’s dream of true socialism, which means political equality and free access to quality education and health for all, should not be abandoned just to benefit some party elites. Bolivia has begun to engage in a structural transformation of its economy through the development of its lithium and gas reserves by the state, now this socialist dream can finally be realized, but only if done in the eleno spirit.

Diego von Vacano is a Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University. Julia Peredo Miranda works in the public sector in Bolivia.