US intervention in Latin American politics extends back almost to the founding of this country, predating even the Monroe Doctrine. Overt interventions in the 19th and early 20th centuries included the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, Banana Wars, and many others. These interventions evolved into slightly more covert but equally, if not more, violent interventions during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. This has included countless US-backed coups, training and support for right-wing paramilitaries, an over half-century long effort to destabilize Cuba, and innumerable other cases. It is in this context that we must evaluate the American relationship with Bolivia, particularly in light of the coup d’état that occurred in that country last year.
Bolivia serves as an especially interesting case because, in the space of days, the country transitioned (non-democratically) from a left-leaning, socially-democratic, Indigenous-led government to a far-right, overtly Christian one. This rapid change was only mildly and briefly noted in most of the US press, despite the clear undemocratic nature of the shift and the violent repression in the country that accompanied it.
The immediate situation went as follows: in October 2019, Evo Morales ran for a fourth term as President of Bolivia. Morales was the first Indigenous leader of the majority-Indigenous nation and his years in power were characterized by broad economic advancement for the poorest citizens of the country (among many notable statistics, the proportion of Bolivians living in extreme poverty went from 36% to 17% during Morales’ time in office). Morales was one of a handful of left-leaning leaders elected in Latin America in the 2000s, including Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Despite some criticism for standing for a fourth term, Morales remained broadly popular and was the favorite to win last year’s election.
Indeed, as votes were being tabulated, it became clear Morales would win and the only question was by how much (Bolivian law requires a 10% margin of victory, plus winning over 40% of the vote, to avoid a second-round run-off). Before the election had been called, however, the Organization of American States, who was monitoring the election, alleged with little evidence that there were counting irregularities and declared the vote fraudulent. The Trump administration and prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio (and numerous Democrats) came out against Morales. Despite his agreeing to new elections, on November 10, the military publicly demanded Morales’ resignation, and he fled the country. After his ouster, right-wing, white Christian Senator Jeanine Añez appointed herself interim president. Meanwhile, mass protests by the Morales’ base, following the coup, triggered a brutal state crackdown, in which at least several dozen of his supporters have been killed.
Despite a lack of procedural legitimacy, Añez remains president today, and new elections have thus far been postponed twice. Notably, a study earlier this year by MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab determined that last year’s election was indeed fair.
How does the US fit in amidst this? Clearly, its early denouncement of Morales and support for the OAS lent confidence to the right-wing political and military forces that ultimately initiated the coup d’état. The OAS has a long history of domination by Washington, and specifically, in intervening in elections seen as unfavorable to the United States (Haiti in 2000 and 2010 are two recent examples). The US press also played a supportive role by downplaying the military’s role in overthrowing Morales and over-emphasizing perceived antidemocratic tendencies by Morales himself. Perhaps above all, like other left-wing Latin American leaders, Morales had long been a thorn in Washington’s side, and there was clearly an eagerness among US leaders to see him go.
It is too early to know with any certainty whether Washington had inside knowledge of or involvement with the acute effort to remove Morales, but it has been widely suggested that Bolivia’s vast lithium reserves—essential to electric car batteries—lent significant impetus to Western support for a change in government. Indeed, Morales had cancelled a contract with a German lithium mining company, ACISA, only a week before the coup took place, after mass protests from local residents.
Despite Trump’s “America First” isolationist bluster, the United States continues to remain a violently destabilizing actor around the world. The administration’s actions in relation to countries as far-flung as Iran, Yemen, Venezuela—and here, Bolivia—have served to exacerbate regional tensions and, in many cases, intensify American involvement in the affairs of these nations. In this case, it is the people of Bolivia who will suffer most.
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