Bolivia’s new government and the lithium coup

What United States involvement abroad teaches us about climate change

Evo+Morales

Evo Moralez Ayma / Facebook

Evo Morales

By Ryan Kapoor, Collegian Contributor

For the last 10 months, the people of Bolivia have been struggling to restore their democracy and national sovereignty following a coup d’état. President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, won his fourth consecutive election in October 2019. Following this victory for Morales and the Movement for Socialism, a Washington D.C.-based election monitoring group called the Organization of American States decried the results as fraudulent. By Nov. 10, the commander of the Bolivian military, Williams Kaliman Romero, publicly asked Morales to resign. After Morales was granted asylum in Mexico, a center-right politician named Jeanine Añez declared herself president in front of a mostly empty senate.

According to DemocracyNow, the new government and its supporters went on a campaign of brutal, anti-indigenous violence throughout the country. In the majority indigenous city of Cochabamba, the military carried out a massacre against protestors, in which they fired live rounds into a crowd, killing at least nine people and injuring over 100. Another similar massacre was carried out in the city of La Paz. A commissioner for the United Nations Human Rights Council confirmed this and other instances of violence throughout Bolivia based on hundreds of interviews with eye-witnesses. MAS party officials have been kidnapped, beaten alongside their families and military checkpoints have been set up across the country. A pro-Morales mayor was dragged into the street, her hair forcibly cut, and doused in red paint by a mob of opposition supporters. President Añez has turned a blind eye to “shock groups” (paramilitary gangs of armed motorcyclists) who have targeted family members of protestors who have been killed, the majority of whom are indigenous.

It is abundantly clear now that the OAS was wrong and was most likely actively fueling the overthrowing of a democratically elected leader. At the time, The New York Times cited the OAS report to label the coup a democratic uprising against an authoritarian leader. They later reversed their claim in June, however, after the researchers at University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University found no decisive election irregularities. Of course, there was a different study already out from the Center for Economic and Policy Research only days after the Bolivian election, which clearly showed that there had been no election fraud. This report was independently verified in February 2020 but the Times failed to timely correct itself. This leads me to suspect that this entire coup was orchestrated by the powers within Washington D.C.

It is no secret that the United States government dislikes Morales. Internal documents from the early 2000s describe Morales as an “anti-democratic threat” and outline a project by American diplomats to use the U.S. Aid and International Development office funds to sponsor groups opposing Morales and the MAS. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the OAS itself is mostly funded by the United States. In 2020 alone, the United States provided $50 million of the OAS’ $80 million budget. After the coup, the United States was the first country to recognize this new government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement that the United States “pledge[s] our support to the Bolivian people and to the transitional government led by President Jeanine Anez as they prepare for these elections.”

Amidst the pandemic, the coup government has set and then cancelled elections three times already while some polls show that MAS, Morales’ party, consistently maintains a large lead in the polls. The resistance to the coup government by the social movements, trade unions and people of Bolivia has not stopped. For much of the last few months, general strikes and freeway blockades spearheaded by workers had brought the country to complete stop. As a concession, the blockades ended with the setting of the newest, upcoming election date, Oct. 18, almost a full year since the beginning of the coup.

“My Crime, My Sin, Is To Be An Indian”

Following the rise of a revolutionary nationalist movement in 1952 and its subsequent overthrow by a military junta in 1964, Bolivia experienced several decades of incredible political turmoil. Coups and countercoups (sometimes aided by the United States) were the norm in the late 1970s and 80s. Then in 1993, a political alliance brought a neoliberal government promising reform into power. Instead, the government brought austerity, privatization and the subservience of the Bolivian economy to transnational corporations. During the mid-2000s, the mass privatization of natural gas and the resale of gas at sub-market rates to United States companies led to massive unrest in Bolivia, which ended in the resignation of the president and vice president. Then, for the first time in 40 years, an absolute majority elected the next president: Evo Morales.

Evo Morales is the first indigenous president in a country where indigenous people make up almost two-thirds of the population. In a December 2019 interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald, Morales said, “My crime, my sin, is to be an Indian. And to have nationalized our natural resources, removed the transnational corporations from the hydrocarbon sector and mining. But also, the fact that I reduced extreme poverty with social programs.”

The change following Morales’ election was dramatic. From 2004 to 2013, the share of people living in poverty fell from 63.9 to 32.7 percent. This change was mirrored amongst those living in extreme poverty, down from 54 to 36 percent, and in rural, mainly indigenous areas, down from 81 to 59 percent. By building mining operations and production sites for lithium batteries, electric vehicles and lithium derivative products, the Morales presidency sought to bring technological innovation and economic power to Bolivia. It cannot be denied that Morales brought stability and dignity, as Bolivian radio host Mario Rodríguez identified, “It must be emphasized that a relative majority of the electorate did vote for Evo, and many people here in El Alto yesterday were thanking him for the social policy of these years… because indigenous people have finally achieved dignity.”

There is legitimate and valid criticism of Morales. Although the coup government is dominated by the far-right, even his own base was frustrated with Morales for seeking a fourth term. Rodríguez points out how this decision united moderate people — who were indignant with an old government attempting to hold onto power — with the far-right, who detests Morales, his base and his policies. Also, Morales’ extractive policies depended on the combination of high demand and high prices of oil which, to some, enabled only a “distribution, not a redistribution” of wealth within Bolivia. Additionally, environmental activists were concerned over the reliance on extractive industries to industrialize and develop Bolivia. High rates of femicide in Bolivia also contributed to criticism from feminist groups of Morales. Despite its socialist leanings, Bolivia has remained within the capitalist system of global markets.

However, defiance of the United States is the most likely cause of Morales’ ouster. Morales thinks so himself: “This energy sector is so important for Bolivia because we have the opportunity to set the price for lithium for the whole world, but in collaboration with Europe, China, Asia. But the United States is left out, and they can’t handle it, that an Indian is in charge… I’m convinced it’s a lithium coup d’état.” Lithium is key to the electric car industries growing in China, the United States and Europe. Bolivia has anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the world’s lithium. Goldman Sachs estimated that the demand for lithium could triple to 570,000 tons a year in the next 10 years due to electric vehicles. Removing United States from direct lithium deals means American corporations would have a harder time finding lithium and its derivative products, as well as having to pay a higher price for them.

One of the largest buyers of lithium in the United States is the electric car manufacturer, Tesla, run by Elon Musk. Tesla requires vast amounts of lithium graphite for its famous lithium batteries. In 2016, Fortune Magazine reported Musk saying that in order to meet Tesla’s production target of 500,000 cars a year, “We would basically need to absorb the entire world’s lithium-[ion] production.” Then, for seemingly no reason at all, on July 24, Musk tweeted in response to an accusation that the United States had overthrown Morales so he could obtain lithium that, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” The tweet has since been deleted but here is a screenshot. Musk countered that Tesla gets its lithium from Australia. While true, this ignores the point that gaining lithium in Bolivia would allow Tesla to meet projected production goals as the battery market expands, not to find an alternative source of lithium.

A Green Future

Clearly, this coup had very little to do with freedom, democracy or overthrowing an authoritarian leader. It is a demonstration of the power of multinational corporations, with the assistance of the United States government, to overthrow democratically elected leaders who cross them. Of course, the material evidence has yet to come to light because American operations generally emerge after the fact. However, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck, it’s probably a duck. The frequency of United States interference in Latin America elections is well-documented, as are American international (and domestic) counter-insurgency operations, as is the United States government’s (and seemingly Elon Musk’s) dislike of Morales. In the totality of the circumstances, it is not unreasonable to suspect American involvement, especially given the heavy-handedness of the Trump administration. But what does this discussion of Bolivian politics, lithium and Tesla have to do with us college students?

As the effects of climate change grow, the fantasies of incredible technological innovation to combat the challenge are everywhere. There is a hope that the advent of electric cars (such as those made by Tesla) will be a step toward a broader green transition, getting us significantly closer to mitigating the crisis. While this might be true, the necessary materials and labor require the destruction of Bolivian democracy and the further exploitation of Bolivia. Is it right that an American green transition be built on the basis of denying that same freedom to other countries? I do not think so.

As one of the generations that will ultimately have to deal with climate change, we must consider what kind of world we are building. What are we agreeing to when we demand the changes necessary to fight climate change? Any green transition must have respect for other nation’s sovereignty and people. To combat climate disaster, we should imagine and demand an economic system and foreign policy that doesn’t require exploiting other nations for our own survival. A popular demand of American progressive movements is the Green New Deal to create a green transition for the majority. Understanding how the American empire maintains its control through political and economic means is vital to winning this demand. Engaging in international solidarity is key to winning the Green New Deal. As students trapped by debt, workers without healthcare or job security and young people facing climate change, our interests should not be aligned with those of the American empire or the fifth-richest man alive, but rather, with the Bolivian people fighting for their democracy and dignity.

Ryan Kapoor can be reached at [email protected].