The Bolivian Coup That Wasn’t

On October 20th 2019, Bolivian voters headed to the polls and voted for Evo Morales to continue into a fourth term as President. Although the results showed Morales winning by over the 10% he needed to avoid a runoff, the Organization of American States (OAS), a US lead organization which was created to stop the spread of communism in the Americas and which is headquartered in Washington DC began declaring fraud. This was shortly followed by the US State Department in what clearly appeared to be a coordinated effort. Right wing protesters in Bolivia began taking to the streets, including going so far as to set fire to electoral buildings and ballot boxes, actions which don’t suggest protecting the electoral process was their main concern. In fact, the Civic Community party of Carlos Mesa, who was second in the election, had been declaring that they expected fraud even before the election, a clear suggestion that they were never interested in engaging in the process in good faith.

Predictably, the American media was quickly on the case, as they always are, spreading misinformation and existing as the mouthpiece of US imperialism. In contrast to how the media at the time was reporting on left-wing protests in Chile, which were largely being papered over or focusing only on a vague sense of “inequality”, the media chose to portray these anti-democratic protests in Bolivia as righteous anger, often choosing to report on the dubious fraud claims as though they were fact. A collection of articles assembled by FAIR at the time shows a shocking contrast in reporting on the events in the two countries, sometimes from the same author on both.

On November 10th military leaders in Bolivia demanded the resignation of Morales and other members of his government. Despite being a clear cut coup, the western media all refused to classify it as such, instead claiming that Morales resigned in response to protests over the alleged fraud. The person to take power would be Jeanine Anez, the second vice president of the Senate, whose party had finished in fourth place with a mere 4% of the vote. It was in this context that you had a New York Times story referring to these actions as marking “the end of tyranny” for Bolivia. Morales was forced to flee the country in order to avoid being killed. Although a number of different independent studies would eventually all conclude the lack of evidence for any fraud in Bolivia, the coup was in full swing, and the neoliberal media was fully in support of it, as was most of the political establishment on both sides of the aisle in the US.

Morales was portrayed generally by the media in this time as a power hungry dictator ruining his country; a claim that was not only absurd but ignored massive amounts of material evidence, such as the numerous improvements he had made to the quality of life in the country, such as reducing poverty by 40%, eliminating illiteracy, breaking Boliva free from the International Monetary Fund, and the creation of indigenous specific universities, paired with a major increase in the rate indigenous people attended universities. Left out of these thinkpieces entirely  was that Morales was the first indigenous leader of Bolivia, a country with a majority indigenous population, and as the right wing coup forces took the capital and drove out the MAS government, Bolivian fascist Luis Camacho entered the presidential palace with a bible and declared the return of Christian rule. At the same time, people in the streets were burning the Wiphala, the flag of the indigenous people which Morales had made one of the two official flags of Boliva. Police officers cut the Wiphala from the patch on their uniforms as they began cracking down on supporters of Morales. November 2019 would prove to be the second deadliest month for civilian casualties caused by state forces in nearly 40 years in Bolivia. These actions show us not just a coup against a left wing government, but also a deeply reactionary movement seeking to restore the rule of a small group descended from colonizers over an indigenous majority. This is the sort of story that the liberal media would have you believe they care about and want to criticize, but instead they were all uncritically reporting the same exact stories about electoral fraud and suggesting mass dissatisfaction with Bolivia’s government, without providing any of the necessary context for who was on each side of this fight. That Anez was a white supremacist who had publicly referred to “indigenous satanic rites” and said that she dreamed of a day when the capital was free of indigenous people entirely was not something anyone following what the news was feeding them would know.

While the extent of US involvement in this situation remains murky, everything surrounding the events should paint a clear picture of what they wanted to happen in Bolivia. The right in Bolivia had been communicating with the US even prior to the election, and had even been asking President Trump to stop Morales from running for re-election. One of the most clarifying aspects of the Bolivian coup is centered around the plans Morales had signaled to nationalize Bolivia’s lithium industry. Bolivia has the largest lithium reserves of any country, and it’s becoming an increasingly important resource as electric cars take off. In the wake of the coup, stock prices for Tesla rose significantly. Beyond this, we know that Carlos Trujillo, the US ambassador to the OAS, was actively involved in pushing the OAS report on fraud and was pushing for Trump’s administration to support the removal of Morales. What we can see clearly here is that the US Empire and the major corporations which go hand in hand with it had a clear vested interest in the ouster of Morales. We know that these powers have a historic pattern of intervening in previous situations with similar playbooks, and can note that they were very quick in responding with messages of approval even when information was murky, suggesting that they were already planning for such an outcome. Whether it was pushed for with soft power or hard power, the coup in Bolivia was for the benefit of US imperialism and global capitalism. This was supposed to be how the story ended.

On October 18th 2020, despite all of the efforts of both Bolivian fascists and US imperialism, Bolivian voters headed to the polls and voted overwhelmingly for Luis Arce of MAS, the appointed successor of Evo Morales. That this election happened at all is a testament to the massive sacrifices made by many MAS supporters and indigenous activists, a number of whom paid with their lives. The election had been delayed repeatedly, and the coup government led by Anez had repeatedly attempted to bar MAS from even being able to run (unsuccessfully). Protesters took actions such as shutting down roads and other mass protests in order to pressure the government. Additionally, leaders had called for a general strike if their demands were not met. Aside from brutalizing MAS supporters in the streets, the state had also barred more than 50,000 Bolivians abroad from voting and purged nearly 150k voters from the rolls earlier in the year. A victory against the coup government and the system of US imperialism backing it up was supposed to be impossible. Instead, it showed people under the oppressive thumb of imperialism around the world what a working blueprint looked like for fighting back.