US must condemn coup, support democracy in Bolivia

Illustration of Evo Morales
Rhea Dias/Staff

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Evo Morales, the now-former president of Bolivia, was forced out of office by the military Nov. 10, just weeks after he was elected for a fourth presidential term. In the following weeks, there were allegations of political repression and violence committed by the interim government. 

The seemingly undemocratic coup in Bolivia should have sparked public outrage and critical examination in the mainstream press, since the event represents the continued corruption of democracy with the apparent consent of the United States. The mainstream media, nevertheless, continues to refuse to call the event a coup. Moreover, it also consistently describes the ensuing violence as a clash between the interim government and the protesters, rather than contending with the realities of political repression. In addition to protesters, journalists in Bolivia are being threatened in an ever-deepening power grab by the political right. Promised elections are on the way, yet these attempts to silence political opposition are cause for deep doubts over the potential return to democracy.

Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006. He is a socialist and has nationalized many, but not all, strategic industries and spent the gains in public investment. This has greatly increased the quality of life for the majority of the country’s poor citizens, mitigating income inequality and setting a new precedence for cultural inclusion. Morales has enjoyed significant popularity and electoral success because of this strong track record in reducing deep poverty.

Yet Morales’ reforms have also incurred powerful enemies. Just a week before the elections, responding to concerned workers in Potosí, Morales rejected a deal to sell the country’s large lithium supply to multinational firms. After Morales was deposed, the interim right-wing government of Jeanine Áñez, who was an evangelical lawmaker, restored the contract with the German company ACI Systems Alemania, which supplies batteries to Tesla. Tesla’s stock rose the week following the coup.

Adding to right-wing frustration, Morales’ continued electoral success presented an obstacle to policy more favorable to global investment in mining and other extraction industries. Morales drew political ire in 2016 for holding a constitutional referendum to abolish term limit requirements, which he lost by a slim margin. Morales pursued the issue in the constitutional court, which ruled in his favor so long as elections were free and fair. Nevertheless, confusion between the referendum decision and the court’s ruling drew criticism and even outrage from Morales’ opponents. 

Using this political turmoil as a pretext, the Organization of American States, headquartered in Washington, D.C., chose to audit the Bolivian election. It released a report citing several irregularities in Morales’ reelection, including the jump in support that Morales saw in the last 5% of the vote. It then advised that the elections should be seen as null. The Center for Economic and Policy Research, however, released a report arguing that this jump in electoral performance should have been expected, as the geographic areas counted in the last 5% of the electorate have traditionally voted in favor of Morales by similar numbers. 

Irregular or not, Morales offered to allow for new elections. Despite this, the military forcefully removed Morales and established an undemocratic interim government led by the political opposition. Not only was Morales forced out of office, he was forced to flee the country out of concern for his life.

The United States and other right-wing leaders in the region applauded while Áñez celebrated that “the Bible has returned to the government palace” and vowed to purge symbols of the indigenous Aymara people from government offices; Áñez is also on record expressing fiercely anti-indigenous views. The governments of Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and Uruguay have all condemned the regime change as a military coup. 

While a constitutionally required rerun election has been set for May, the cabinet and other leadership positions have been overhauled. The ensuing killing of protesters and threatening of journalists in the aftermath of the coup causes deep concern over Bolivia’s democratic future. 

To me, the answer is obvious: A military acting without any clear democratic mandate to remove a democratically elected leader is a coup. Only time will tell if Bolivia’s promised elections will restore democracy, however, the recent events described cast rationale for outrage and concern. The death toll in the aftermath of Morales’ forced departure has reached alarming levels, including the killing of journalist Sebastian Moro and the abduction of Argentine photojournalist Facundo Molares. 

The United States continues to stand by the interim government. President Donald Trump’s response to the coup was perhaps predictable, claiming, “We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous and free Western Hemisphere.” Yet for those on the streets of Bolivia, nothing could be further from the truth. It is imperative for Americans to contend with this issue for themselves and decide if the United States’ commitment to democracy is real.

As Moro wrote on the day that Morales was overthrown, “There were acts of vandalism and attacks on officials, journalists and militants. … Among those events, the governor of Oruro suffered the burning of his home, workers of the Bolivia TV channel and Radio Patria Nueva were kidnapped and deprived of their right to work by shock mobs.” Moro died six days later.

For Morales’ supporters in Bolivia, these events appear to be yet another case of the tradition of U.S. intervention, forcing undemocratic regime changes of leftist leaders in Latin America, likely to enable the privatization of key industries and consequential corporate profits. For the sake of democracy and peaceful prosperity across the world, the American people should demand a reversal of foreign policy in the region and seek leaders committed to the same. 

Jonathan Molina is a research apprentice of the Latinx Democracy Research project at UC Berkeley. He is a junior political science major, intending to minor in global studies.