Politics, World, Americas

Was 'coup' against Evo Morales over Bolivia’s lithium?

Evo Morales and current Bolivian president point to struggle for future of country’s natural resource as ulterior motive

Jorge Antonio Rocha   | 19.04.2021
Was 'coup' against Evo Morales over Bolivia’s lithium?


On March 24th this year, visiting Bolivian President Luis Arce joined Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for his daily morning press conference at the National Palace in Mexico's capital.

The two leaders reminisced about the political turmoil that unfolded in Bolivia at the end of 2019, which many have characterized as a violent military coup that brought the 14 years of then re-elected President Evo Morales' government to a close.

In the joint press conference, Arce thanked Mexico for its support after providing refuge to Morales following the interim government's retaliation, condemning those who instigated the violent coup, which saw many Morales supporters violently killed by the military and members of Morales' Movement for Socialism (MAS) party persecuted by the right-wing opposition.

To this day, what happened from election day on Oct. 20, 2019 to Morales' exile on Nov. 12 that year is a highly polarized subject, with some claiming the political crisis was a popular uprising to stop Morales’ fraudulent reelection and others pointing to a more sinister scheme perpetrated by foreign actors.

Movement for Socialism

Evo Morales was first elected president of Bolivia back in 2005, with his political party MAS holding the majority in both congressional houses.

The socialist president of a country whose population is over 60% indigenous became known for implementing groundbreaking economic and constitutional policies. Acknowledging the diversity of the indigenous peoples of Bolivia, Morales became the leader of a multiethnic country.

From 2006 to 2018, Bolivia experienced significant economic growth unlike the rest of the region, with its GDP consistently above Latin American averages.

Unemployment levels decreased from 7.7% to 4.4% in 2008, following this trend by 2018. In addition, Morales' government held annual meetings with unions to negotiate wages. During his mandate, the minimum wage in Bolivia rose by 140%.

Morales oversaw a stable economy, high investment and controlled inflation. His lauded economic strategy allowed the government to invest heavily in social assistance programs to redistribute wealth equitably.

Over 5.8 million Bolivians received a direct cash deposit from the government. Through these government assistance programs that benefited around 50% of citizens, Morales cut down on poverty and extreme poverty rates in half.

Quick Count and OAS controversy

After serving three consecutive terms, Morales sought reelection in the 2019 polls. The decision was met with controversy from the opposition, with detractors worried about witnessing a one-man government clinging to power.

However, the Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional and undemocratic for Morales not to run for a consecutive fourth term.

On Oct. 20, elections in Bolivia were held. For Morales to win, he would need 50% of the vote or a 10% lead on his opponent Carlos Mesa. Otherwise, the election would go to a second round, with the Organization of American States (OAS) overseeing the results.

The OAS is an autonomous body that provides for mediation in several Latin American countries to oversee all democratic processes at a time when several leftist administrations in the region slam its pro-US agenda.

Following the OAS’s recommendations, a quick count system was implemented in Bolivia, with an official legally binding count announced afterward.

According to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) regarding the OAS’s role in the Bolivian elections, the quick count is intended to provide a "swift but incomplete and non-definitive result."

An initial quick count with 84% of the vote sheets counted gave Morales 46% of the votes and Mesa 38%, a difference of around 8 percentage points. At this point, the electoral authorities decided to stop the count, with the opposition and media denouncing the decision.

However, not only did the electoral authorities announce that they would stop reporting after 80% of the voting sheets were counted more than a week before the elections were held, but the quick count in previous elections never reached 100% before stopping the count.

After the opposition and the OAS pressured the electoral authorities to resume the quick count, the results with around 96% of the sheet votes counted gave Morales a lead of 47% to Mesa's 37%, giving Morales the 10% he needed to win the presidency.

It was at this point that the election was accused of being rigged and Morales' win questioned.

On Oct. 21, through a press release, the OAS denounced the election results, hinting towards a fraudulent outcome and expressing "deep concern and surprise.”

Morales proposed an international audit of the results, with the OAS and foreign governments invited to participate, making it clear that he would abide by the international audit’s findings. Mesa rejected the audit, however, demanding that the official results be annulled.

‘The bible returns to the palace’

In the ensuing days, the turmoil in Bolivia over the election results grew exponentially, with clashes between Morales' detractors and supporters culminating in violence and death.

During the days before Morales' exile, demonstrators would go to the extent of burning down five out of nine electoral tribunals, with people fleeing to avoid being burned alive.

In anger, MAS detractors burnt the Wiphala flag, the emblem of various native Bolivian communities in the Andes. Civic clash groups later turned into paramilitary groups that persecuted MAS supporters, resorting to acts of violence such as beatings and harassment, with high-profile politicians’ homes being torched.

On Nov. 10, police commander Yuri Calderon and armed forces commander General William Kaliman "suggested" to Morales to step down from the presidency.

At this point, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard denounced the "military operation" to overthrow Morales and offered him political asylum.

At a press conference, Morales and his Vice President Alvaro Garcia announced that they would give up their positions, pleading for the violence to stop and addressing the aggressors. The deposed president said that "you want revenge with Evo and Alvaro, not with our families."

On Nov. 12, Morales arrived in Mexico. Meanwhile, opposition Senator Jeanine Anez announced her interim presidency, straying away from the line of succession and without congress's approval.

At the doors of the National Palace, Anez announced that "the bible returns to the Palace."

While Morales was in exile in Mexico, Bolivia was undergoing a violent transformation from economic and social stability to constant civil clashes with the armed forces with fatal consequences.

In the cities of Sacaba on Nov. 15 and Senkata on Nov. 19, the armed forces fired at reportedly unarmed demonstrators who were marching in support of their deposed president. At least 18 people were killed by the police and the military.

During the political crisis since election day, a total of 36 civilians were reportedly killed with Anez as interim president enacting a decree that labeled any military action to contain the protests in the streets as self-defense, giving soldiers impunity to use excessive force.

The OAS ‘mission’

The fraud claims instigated by the OAS fueled the discourse that justified Morales' forced exile, with high-profile US politicians praising the military's actions and acknowledging Anez as Bolivia's president.

Mike Pompeo, former director of the CIA and secretary of state in the Trump administration, quickly praised Anez’s presidency and Morales' deposition.

"The United States applauds Bolivian Senator Jeanine Anez for stepping up as interim president of state to lead her nation through this democratic transition," said Pompeo in a statement.

But according to the CEPR report on the matter, the fraud allegations were not only far-fetched but apparently fabricated.

The OAS’s allegations were focused on an "inexplicable" change in the voting pattern development, claiming that Morales' votes experienced a notable boost once the quick count was resumed.

However, rural and impoverished regions of Bolivia had heavily supported Morales in the past. These regions, which are slower to transmit data, would explain the "change" in the trend questioned by the OAS.

The CEPR report concluded that the trend in both counts "did not change over time” and reflected “well-known voting patterns," saying that the OAS’s statements were unsustainable as the organization presented no evidence to support its claims of fraud.

The fraud allegations, which were pushed by Morales' detractors and the Trump administration, depicted a popular uprising against a corrupted authoritarian regime. However, with these claims proving to be inaccurate, the causes behind Morales' overthrow seem unclear.

Ominously, the CEPR points out that the US supplies over 60% of the OAS budget.

‘We will coup whoever we want, deal with it!’

During the joint press conference alongside Lopez Obrador, Luis Arce made clear the ultimate goal behind the coup.

"It was evident to us that the economic objective of the coup was to control the lithium,” he argued.

Lithium has become a key and strategic resource for the energy transition worldwide. Its use has become pivotal for global consumption, powering computers, smartphones and electric cars.

According to a 2019 article published in the Bolivian Studies Journal, “The Political Economy of Gas, Soy and Lithium in Morales’ Bolivia” by Nicole Fabricant and Bret Gustafson, lithium demand is growing exponentially.

It noted that lithium car battery sales could jump from $100 million per year to $100 billion.

While the US and China control most of the market and production of lithium, holding their deposits and yielding control over Latin America's, Bolivia has around 70% of the world's resources.

"It is about having control of a resource that is considered not so much for its economic value but its importance for technological development. Guaranteeing the long-term supply of lithium for the industrial powers is very important," said Federico Nacif, coordinator of technological linkage at the Foundation for Innovation and Technology Transfer (INNOVA-T) in Argentina.

Being one of the world powers with no control over any deposits, Germany made a significant breakthrough by ensuring a historic agreement with the government of Bolivia to exploit and industrialize lithium.

Unlike Chile and Argentina, which hold significant lithium resources globally, the mineral in Bolivia had never been exploited. After a failed attempt to do so in the 1990s, Morales took another shot using the much-coveted resource before the 2019 elections.

On the eve of the coup, a deal between state-owned lithium company Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano (YLB) and Germany's ACI Systems started to come into fruition.

Through YLB, lithium's first exploitation phase was underway, with the extractive technology already under construction.

"We had already traveled from different countries. We were able to visit the facilities, which were very advanced at the time," said Nacif.

In addition to the primary production plant, Bolivia counted on a pilot plant to industrialize lithium for the production of batteries -- the most important in the region. Neither Chile nor Argentina had fully equipped facilities such as Bolivia's, with associated research laboratories and resources.

The batteries would go to the European market. Bolivia would receive the technology required to exploit and industrialize lithium and Germany had guaranteed its supply.

Civil clash groups embodied the violent uprising's focal points by Morales' opposition from the Santa Cruz and Potosi departments, the latter holding significant lithium deposits in the country.

The Civic Committee of Potosí (COMCIPO) had instigated protests and blocked major commerce routes, demanding the Bolivian government to repeal the deal with the German company.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, the president of COMCIPO, Juan Carlos Manuel, talked about the civic committee's blockades and demonstrations to repeal the agreement.

"Months before, when we learned about the decree with Germany, we mobilized the department of Potosi. We requested, and they ignored us. We stopped for more than 37 days because of their apathy. We paralyzed our capital until they listened,” he said.

The deal with Germany had become a central point of COMCIPO's criticism towards Morales' government, with detractors from Potosi demanding higher royalties from the use of the resource and looking for a more suitable company to industrialize lithium.

Civic committees, which are largely composed of middle class workers, do not represent the entirety of the departments, since farmers and native communities do not constitute the body of committees such as COMCIPO.

According to Juan Carlos Manuel, COMCIPO's principal advisor on lithium, Juan Carlos Zuleta, suggested that ACI Systems was inadequate and did not have the technological and economic resources to carry out the industrialization project.

Zuleta has served as an adviser to major foreign energy companies and private hedge funds tied to US capital, with some observers questioning his experience in carrying out a project of this magnitude.

Morales would eventually give in to the pressures and pull back from the deal with ACI Systems. After his exile and Anez’s self-proclaimed presidency, Juan Carlos Zuleta became the head of YLB.

Arce would later declare that one of the central parties interested in Bolivia's lithium would be none other than American manufacturer Tesla, with its CEO Elon Musk even tweeting over Bolivia's situation, saying: "We will coup whoever we want, deal with it!"

"I think it is crucial for the United States that there was a government such as Bolivia that was deciding a policy of industrialization and autonomous technology, that is, for the traditional logic of the United States, considered a risk,” said Nacif.

Ultimately, Zuleta would be fired from his position.

"It became clear what he [Zuleta] was hiding when they denounced the state project as well as his relationship with US companies and US hedge funds," said Nacif.

Bolivia in 2021

Almost a year after Morales' exile, On Oct. 18, 2020, Bolivia went through another presidential election. This time, Luis Arce, the minister of economy under Morales, was the one to present his candidacy for the Movement for Socialism.

With 55% of the votes, Arce became the democratically elected president of Bolivia, with Anez and Carlos Mesa acknowledging the leftist victory.

Morales, who was living in Argentina, returned to his home country on Nov. 9, 2020 once Arce was officially elected, with some believing that Arce is merely a puppet of Morales and others hoping for a capable leader to unify a divided country.

Nevertheless, the recent elections held on April 11 were an eye-opener for the MAS party, with the opposition winning over the ruling party in four departments, including Santa Cruz, where opposition leader Luis Fernando Cacho -- one of the main instigators of Morales’ ouster in 2019 -- won.

According to Bret Gustafson, an anthropologist and researcher specialized in Latin America and Bolivia, Arce might have a challenging presidency, since the leverage and hegemony MAS had over the local governments depended on the royalties perceived from Bolivia's natural resources exports.

"The resources from natural gas are running out, and Evo Morales was able to use those resources to maintain economic stability and political stability, and the resources that are expected from lithium aren't going to start flowing in anytime soon," said Gustafson.

Arce has promised to restore the agreement with ACI Systems to ensure economic stability to the same extent that natural gas did, a decision that is still met with criticism.

"We are very surprised that Arce wants to take it up again. Something dark these gentlemen are plotting. The people of Potosi will not allow it. With ACI Systems, it will not happen," said Juan Carlos Manuel, promising to reignite the clashes prior to Morales' exile.

Arce still has to deal with the internal division of his country while securing economic stability without antagonizing civic committees that were so adamant against Morales, as well as the alleged role of foreign governments in the 2019 election.

"I think the US, whether it's under [Donald] Trump or [Joe] Biden, is still heavily influenced by the very predatory foreign policy vision of Latin America. And the idea that they need to have economic, political and/or if necessary, military access to any part of the hemisphere,” said Gustafson.

The author of "Bolivia in the Age of Gas” questions the current stand of the US regarding Bolivia, with current Secretary of State Antony Blinken denouncing the incarceration of former interim president Anez in March and officials in Washington defending the OAS.

"And this is why their support for the OAS is so questionable. They want to use the OAS to increase their regional hegemony. It is about influence and control," Gustafson added.

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