To understand recent events in Bolivia, it is necessary to have historical context. No event occurs in isolation from the past. With such information we can interpret the present, especially when we should be critical of the representation of events featured in Western media. Armed with the history, we see the coup against Evo Morales not as a spontaneous revolt brought on by constitutional zeal, but the latest intervention against a socialist leader in the form of a U.S.-endorsed coup, with control over natural resources and geopolitics at the center of it all. Just as indigenous rebels were suppressed in the colonial past to guarantee the smooth flow of treasure from Latin America, so too has Morales and his supporters been toppled so gas and lithium could move cheaply into factories owned by Western multinational corporations. The mainstream political left has been slow to admit it, but even presidential candidates are calling it a coup.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries the Spanish Empire controlled most of the New World, with the wealth of Latin America enriching the monarchy in Madrid. Silver was one of the continent’s top exports, especially a huge deposit at Potosí in modern Bolivia. In a little over a century and a half, the silver stolen by Spain from Latin America totaled three times the total European reserves. Ultimately, most of the loot went to the empire’s creditors, the patrician moneylenders of the era. Today, Bolivia still has the resources, but none of the wealth. According to the 2018 Human Development Index, an annual report by the United Nations Development Programme, ranks Bolivia with Vietnam and Palestine in terms of life expectancy, education, and quality of life. Eduardo Galeano, in his seminal work Open Veins of Latin America, quotes an old lady from Potosí: “The city which has given most to the world and has the least.”
To those who study development and underdevelopment, the idea of “rich countries with poor people” is nothing new. Hundreds of billions of dollars leave Sub-Saharan Africa every year, either through the repatriated profits of multinationals or illegal deposits in offshore tax havens and Swiss bank accounts, and yet the continent contains some of worst poverty and weakest institutions in the world. So too does Latin America. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the proportion of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty increased from 9.9 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent (62 million people) in 2017. Fundamental social protections and fair wealth distributions remain as elusive today as they did in the colonial period.
This is especially true for the indigenous people of Latin America, who also have historically been excluded from political power since colonialism. As in the United States, social conflict exists along racial as well as class lines. The “indios” of Latin America are associated not just with poverty but also witchcraft, anathema to right-wing Latin Catholicism. Bolivia is unique among Latin American states in having around three dozen indigenous groups totaling around half the country’s population. White Bolivians make up just 14 percent of the population, centered in the commercial city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which produces approximately 35 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product. In the 1960s, the famous communist revolutionary Che Guevara felt inspired to fight in the mountains of Bolivia against the government of Rene Barrientos, a right-wing general who had seized power with CIA backing in 1964. By then, tin had supplanted silver as Bolivia’s prized export. Notably, Bolivia did not smelt the minerals it produced; this was done in the industrial heartlands of the Midwestern U.S. and northern England. By blatantly thieving the resources of poorer nations, the capitalist powers fueled their own post-war economic boom, with the surplus wealth shared with the U.S. or British worker. For the Bolivian working class and the indigenous population, there was no investment in social services or poverty reduction, just human suffering. The so-called “Golden Age of Capitalism” for the West came at the expense of the continued exploitation of Latin resources and the repression of Latin peoples.
It was not until 1982 that Bolivia knew something other than military dictatorships and coups, with civilian rule finally being restored. Bolivians, however, did not control their own economy; hyperinflation had reached elevated levels, scaring off foreign investors. As it so often did in the region, the World Bank stepped in, attaching preconditions to its economic assistance. Following a program of structural adjustment, Bolivia privatized its hydrocarbon industry, its telecommunications system, its railways, and its national airlines. In late 1999, riots broke out in the city of Cochabamba over the privatization of the water system. A consortium who took control of the system began charging $20 a month for access to water, ignorant that most Bolivians only earned around $100 a month. The “Cochabamba Water War” led to the privatization being reversed.
In 2003 similar protests over the privatization of hydrocarbons led to the fall of the pro-neoliberal government and, in 2005, the historic election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in Latin American history. Morales was a former cocalero, a grower of the coca leaf, who entered political organization just as indigenous movements across the Andes were demanding greater representation. Ironically, it was the U.S. itself that fueled these movements with the forcible expansion of its “War on Drugs” into South America and the resulting criminalization of the coca plant. Elsewhere, in Peru, the right-wing, anti-communist Alberto Fujimori government oversaw the forced sterilization of around 300,000 poor, indigenous women, one of the largest such operations since the days of Nazi Germany. While rarely mentioned in the West, such a human tragedy provides a timely reminder how exclusion can so easily lead into ethnic cleansing and even systemic genocide of marginalized populations.
With mines closing and coca farming banned, indigenous Bolivians developed powerful grassroot networks for improved social and political inclusion. The Movement for Socialism in Bolivia was one such network, and Morales used its popular strength to launch a series of reforms based around (1) taking natural resources into public ownership and (2) using the wealth to invest in education, health care, and other social programs. Indeed, whatever else one thinks of Morales, it is undisputed under his administration poverty was significantly reduced for the majority of Bolivians. Morales lowered poverty by 42 percent and extreme poverty by 60 percent between 2006 and 2019, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Morales was part of a “pink tide” sweeping through Latin America in the early 21st century. Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed socialist like Morales, had also come to power via the ballot box in 1998 with a similar anti-U.S., anti-neoliberal agenda. Like Chavez, Morales was a charismatic figure with an anti-imperialist message who had to instantly contend with U.S.-backed reactionary elites. Unlike Chavez, Morales did not take the profits of the 2000s commodities boom and spend it lavishly, running budget deficits as Venezuela did. Instead, Bolivia had a budget surplus every year between 2006 and 2014. Morales embraced a “socialism lite” that saw much more gradual nationalizations and more market-friendly policies. Earlier in 2019, Nicolas Maduro barely hung onto power as another U.S.-backed coup attempt sparked and fizzled. Meanwhile, Evo Morales went into a presidential election to serve a fourth term as president of Bolivia.
Morales had won his two previous elections with majorities around 60 percent, but in 2019 the vote was much closer. Morales had tried and failed to get a referendum passed that would have enabled him to circumvent a constitutional term limit (written and ratified under Morales himself) but had decided to run again anyway. When opposition members disputed results that gave Morales the victory, the Organization of American States stepped in to investigate the integrity of the election. The O.A.S., under U.S. direction since the Cold War, had been a staunch critic of Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela, albeit muted on the human rights abuses of pro-U.S. dictatorships. Now it added Morales’ Bolivia to its list of rogue Latin states. The message advanced by the opposition and repeated in the Western press was that Morales’ violation of the constitutional term limits had sparked a national revolution against tyranny.
It seems a tall tale to think that ordinary Bolivians would care so much about term limits that they would send their country into anarchy and possible civil war. If there was such public indignation, it was not represented by the close result of the earlier referendum vote. What was actually represented during the post-election crisis was the anti-indigenous racism and class antagonism of the wealthy Santa Cruz elites. Luis Fernando Camacho, a leader of the Santa Cruz autonomy group, has ties to a far-right paramilitary group with a history of targeting indigenous Bolivians. These are not the masses, but the local commercial bourgeoisie, the white descendants of white colonizers. They would gladly foment civil war, as their Venezuelan counterparts have tried to do, if it would mean the chance to enhance their fortunes with the blessing of Washington behind them. The rich whites of Bolivia live the anxiety of rich whites in the U.S.: exploited non-whites organizing and agitating for immense political, social, and economic reform.
It is worth remembering to those who would paint Morales’ eventual resignation as an organic act of democratization that this only happened after the military intervened. Given the long record of military coups supported by the U.S. in Latin American against left-leaning governments (Paraguay 1954, Brazil 1964, Chile 1973, Argentina 1976, etc.), it seems absurd that anyone would believe what happened in Bolivia was not a coup. More than that, it seems naïve in the extreme to believe that it was not a coup with support from the U.S. government with the goal of forcibly dismantling socialism.
Before the coup, Morales was in the process of industrializing lithium production in Bolivia. The country contains the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, believed to have 50 to 70 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves. Lithium has become a valuable commodity with the development of lithium ion batteries and a greater global turn to renewable energy sources. Typically, valuable minerals like lithium are extracted in their crudest raw forms from underdeveloped countries to be processed in the developed Western hegemons, just as silver and tin ore was smelted in Pittsburgh and Liverpool. To prevent this, Morales began investing heavily in creating all the necessary industrial capacity within Bolivia to process lithium. Assuming Morales eventually brought the lithium industry into public ownership (which would be consistent with his socialist principles, plus the social movement that produced him), Bolivia would no longer be dependent on Western countries to sell lithium ion batteries (and other lithium products) directly in the international marketplace. With the money obtained from that, the country could further invest in other domestic industries, building them up to compete with the very same Western-based corporations that once looted them. Bolivia was trying to gain independence from the U.S.-dominated world economy and having more luck than Venezuela. The consequence was yet another coup in a part of the world where they occur all too commonly. To this day, there has not been a full reckoning with how the U.S. has and continues to actively hinder democratization in Latin America as well as benefits from and contributes to its underdevelopment.
So far, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has stood alone among Democratic candidates in not only addressing the situation in Bolivia but also for identifying Morales’ downfall as a coup. While we should have no illusions that we will see a truly anti-imperialist foreign policy resulting from this election or any near-future election, we should nevertheless embrace the opportunity to support a candidate who recognizes the anti-democratic character of recent events in Bolivia. Furthermore, we should pause and consider the likely many indigenous Bolivians who will suffer due to reprisals and further political violence once the far-right opposition consolidates its hold on power. We are already seeing signs that the current de facto government is drawing up lists of political enemies and courting Catholic extremists rather than extending the olive branch to trade unions and indigenous political groups. This is not a turn toward pluralism at all, but the restoration of a white Latin aristocracy whose anger is fully directed at native Bolivians.