Bolivian Coup Reflects Long History of US Intervention in Latin America

Mass. Peace Action Update, February 2020

Photo by Michael Krahn on Unsplash

by Brian Garvey

The right-wing coup in Bolivia that ousted indigenous President Evo Morales in November is threatening to roll back “one of the most successful social projects in modern Latin American history,” according to Stephen Kinzer, award-winning foreign correspondent and author. It is an attack on a country that is attempting to control its own resources, determine its own destiny and build a more egalitarian society.

Kinzer and UMass, Boston Prof. Steve Striffler, an expert on US-Latin American solidarity, spoke to more than 50 people at a forum organized by Mass. Peace Action and other groups at the Community Church of Boston December 8th. Concerned activists had gathered to learn more about what was happening in Bolivia and to figure out how best to respond.

Kinzer called out the role of the US government in working to destabilize the political situation in Bolivia, foment unrest, and back the coup. “William Kaliman, former Commander in Chief of the Bolivian armed forces, forced President Evo Morales to resign,” Kinzer noted. “A week later he moved to the United States.” The military  ushered in a little-known, right-wing evangelical member of the opposition, Jeanine Añez, as interim president. She approved the violent repression of protesters demonstrating in opposition to the coup—calling  them “terrorists”—and has said she hopes for “a Bolivia without  satanic indigenous rituals.”

“Indigenous people should get out…”

The forum began with a description of the frightening events surrounding the coup by an activist from El Alto, a large city in western Bolivia. Fearing retaliation by the interim government, she asked that her face remain hidden and that she be identified only by her first name, Emma.

Bolivian President Evo Morales was ousted from office by the military
Bolivian President Evo Morales was ousted from office by the military

“On the 20th of October, [the day Morales was elected] people were encouraged to riot,” Emma said. By the next day, the streets were blocked and people couldn’t get to work. She described the anti-Morales protesters as mostly well-to-do, non-indigenous people—a telling fact in Bolivia, since it is the only majority indigenous nation in Latin America. “They were saying that the indigenous people should get out of the cities and go back to the rural areas.”

By the second week of the protests, violence by the Civic Committees—regional, right-wing business organizations in opposition to Morales—was increasing. They were attacking houses, she said, and threatening members of Morales’s majority party,  MAS or the Movement toward Socialism. “The protesters kept trying to enter government buildings by night,” she said. “Fearful citizens of the city were running out of money and food.”

The violence increased after the security forces said they would no longer recognize Morales as president. Morales accepted the demands of the protesters, allowing for a second round of voting, but this was not enough. When the military demanded he resign, Morales agreed, in order to stop the bloodshed. Resignations from the Vice President, President of the Senate, and President of the Chamber of Deputies (all members of MAS) soon followed. This is how power passed to Añez, the second Vice-President of the Bolivian Senate.

But the violence did not stop. Emma told us that, in her neighborhood, members of the Civic Committee came to attack the houses. There was fighting in the streets across Bolivia. The New York Times documented clashes in Cochabamba that left 9 protesters dead and the Grayzone Project a massacre of at least 9 in El Alto.

“A source of wealth to outsiders for centuries”

Kinzer, who is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, provided historical background to the current volatile situation. “Bolivia has been a source of wealth to outsiders for centuries,” he noted. “The silver mines at Potosi helped to make the Spanish empire. The expression ‘vale un Potosi’ or ‘worth a Potosi’ is an expression in Spanish to this day.”

After World War II, US President Roosevelt’s “Why We Fight” message, promoting freedom and resistance to military dictatorship, resonated with the people of Bolivia. While they failed to overthrow their own military government in 1946, they did eventually establish a progressive government in the 1950s. Economic elites in the country attempted to thwart this progressive government, with the help of the new CIA, but it was not until the 1960s that military dictatorships returned to Bolivia.

“In the last 20 years the United States has been distracted from Latin America, caught up in endless wars in the Greater Middle East,” Kinzer said. This allowed progressive governments – the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ – to spread across South America.

One of the most important events of the last decade was the 2009 coup in Honduras. President Zelaya, a supporter of Morales and the late president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, was overthrown. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated. Their support sent a message to elites across Latin America: The United States will not oppose these coups.

Access to resources continues to be a major motivator for US support of right-wing regimes. Bolivia has one of the world’s largest supplies of lithium—the key ingredient in electric cars and smartphones—in its Salar de Uyuni salt flats in the Andes. Some have called it the “gold of the 21st century.” Morales’s government was trying to set up a publicly-owned lithium industry, which would have kept more of the wealth created by the natural resource in the country instead of in the pockets of foreign investors. Kinzer called the lithium battle “a minor league version of the mines at Potosi.”

Kinzer then provided some counter arguments to those who call Morales a tyrant. “Evo’s term runs through January 2020. Even if you don’t accept the election of October 20th, Morales’ term as president that he won five years ago should still be ongoing. The succession laws that are supposed to be followed after a president resigns were completely flouted. Several members of the MAS were passed over and power was passed unconstitutionally to Añez,” he said.

Kinzer’s suggestion? We must insist that these elections, planned for the early months of 2020, are fair and include the MAS. To do this we should flood Bolivia with observers. “Honduras has become extremely violent since the coup in 2009,” he said. “We must make sure what happened in Honduras does not happen in Bolivia.”

The microphone was then passed to Steve Striffler, professor at UMass Boston and an expert on US-Latin American solidarity. He described how Morales and the MAS had been applauded for how they ran the economy of Bolivia for over a decade. “Unfortunately they were vulnerable to overthrow simply by presenting a successful alternative to US-approved capitalism,” Striffler said.

“It’s true that Morales was losing popularity, even among those on the left. He had been in power too long and many progressives complained that his reforms did not go far enough. Despite these criticisms, Morales was certainly the legal president, and there was nothing legitimate about the coup.”

Striffler’s urged more education of the public. “Our abilities as left internationalists are limited,” he said. “The blatant coup is portrayed as legitimate by the mainstream media. We must combat the narrative that the coup was a victory for democracy. This narrative gives the interim government a free hand for violence.”

Bernie Sanders calls the coup a coup

He also called for a change in leadership here in the United States. “Maybe the most important thing we can do is elect Bernie Sanders as president,” Striffler said. Senator Sanders, who has received the endorsement of Massachusetts Peace Action, remains the only presidential candidate to explicitly call the coup in Bolivia a coup. Because of the massive power that presidents have over foreign policy, and because of the power that the United States wields over all of Latin America, it may very well take a new president to stop these coups.

The discussion with the audience was wide-ranging. Some thought it was naïve to demand that the new elections be fair when a fair election was just overturned by a military coup d’etat. Some expressed criticism for left leaders in Venezuela and Nicaragua, while others felt that criticizing these leaders makes their overthrow more likely. One audience member, human rights activist Jeanne Gallo, stressed the importance of building a movement to resist the kind of oppression taking place in Bolivia. “What we are seeing now in Latin America is our future.”

—Brian Garvey is Mass. Peace Action’s full-time organizer. He staffs the Latin America Working Group, the Middle East Working Group, the Raytheon Anti-War Campaign, and MAPA’s work to elect Bernie Sanders.