The socialist government of Bolivian President Evo Morales took power in February 2006. He and Vice President Álvaro García Linare on Oct. 20 had been elected to their fourth terms in office. A coup culminating on Nov. 10 removed them—a coup that the U.S. government had a big role in bringing it about.
A motive existed. The Morales government was vulnerable. And resources—read agents—were in place.
Bolivia’s socialist government had achieved successes and so represented the threat of a good example. Over many years, that’s been a motivating factor for other U.S. interventions. More immediately, Bolivia was bucking colonial or imperialist requirements that a dependent nation may not hold back on the delivery of wealth taken from nature. At issue this time was lithium, not the silver, tin, oil, or natural gas Bolivia has previously exported.
Bolivia’s lithium deposits amount to as much as 70% of the world’s total. Lithium is essential to the manufacture of electronic devices, computers, smart phones, and especially batteries—think electric cars. European and Canadian corporations tried but were unable to gain access.
The Morales government had required at least 50% control of foreign extraction projects; proceeds went toward social development. As regards lithium, foreign companies would have partnered with one of the two state-owned Bolivian companies. Eventually, contracts broke down or never came to fruition.
Recently, two Chinese companies were on the verge of signing contracts with the Bolivian government. China produces almost two-thirds of the world’s lithium batteries and, according to Reuters, “controls most of the world’s lithium processing facilities.” The U.S. government faced the prospect of China gaining exclusive access to Bolivia’s lithium.
Incentive, however, is not enough. U.S. interventions require favorable conditions on the ground. The setting in Bolivia must have looked encouraging to U.S. officials. They had allies. These are the European-descended, relatively wealthy Bolivians who, biased against the poor and the indigenous, have mobilized frequently and often violently against Bolivia’s first indigenous president. The so-called “civic committees” in Bolivia’s four eastern departments have provided leadership. That’s where Bolivia’s production of oil, natural gas, and soy is concentrated, along with its wealth.
U.S. Embassy officials had conspired with the civic committees. The committees had enabled racist assaults and mayhem and had encouraged a separatist movement and an assassination attempt against Morales. The government ultimately expelled the U.S. ambassador, Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. When the time came for a coup, Bolivia’s opposition was ready and prepared.
Controversy over another presidential term for Morales had raged prior to the eventual elections. The resulting divisions and tension must have gratified U.S. coup planners. At issue was a constitutionally imposed two-term limit. The Morales forces suffered a narrow defeat in a Feb. 2016 referendum vote on ending the ban. Later on, the Constitutional Court repealed the limit imposed by the Constitution. That opened the door to another term for Morales.
Most of the judges belonged to Morales’s political party. Agitation over the legality of another term fed into an already unsettled atmosphere; the government looked to be vulnerable. Adding to the mix were allegations of government corruption and dissent over intrusive infrastructure projects.
Morales and Vice President García Linare gained 47% of the vote on Oct. 20 and scored a victory. Their 10.6% plurality over the next candidate in line exceeded the constitutional threshold for a first round victory. Now attention would turn to rapidly escalating protests and violence. Bands of thugs sponsored by the civic committees were on a rampage. Now was time for the U.S. government to move in for the kill. Preparations had been made.
On the day of the elections, the Organization of American States (OAS), commenting on the government’s preliminary report on the voting, highlighted irregularities. The United States echoed those concerns. Protests accentuated and, on Oct. 24, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal officially announced the election results. Under pressure, the government asked the OAS to validate the outcome. Responding on Nov. 10, earlier than expected, the OAS reiterated the story of irregularities. New elections were recommended, and a new Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Morales convoked another election—just before he resigned.
The idea of electoral fraud or significant irregularities was false. Having looked at the statistics, Walter Mebane and colleagues at the University of Michigan concluded that “fraudulent votes in the election were not decisive for the result.” The Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research performed another detailed study and reached the same conclusion.
The OAS, headquartered in Washington, fulfilled expectations as U.S. government handmaiden. The OAS took shape under U.S. auspices in 1948 with the assigned task of protecting Latin America and the Caribbean against communist infection. More recently, the OAS, under Secretary General Luis Almagro’s guidance, has spearheaded U.S. efforts to expel President Nicolás Maduro’s progressive Venezuelan government.
Paradoxically, Almagro in May 2019 gave Morales the go-ahead for a fourth presidential term. That was despite the defeat of the referendum that would have allowed the extra term. His intention may have been to lull Morales into cooperating with an OAS overview of the election results. In any case, the OAS proved to be a “good and faithful servant.”
The issue after the elections was the use of force. The U.S. government had made preparations regarding Bolivia’s security forces. The prelude, however, was force in the streets in the form of violence, destruction, and mounting chaos. Mobs eventually would be torturing MAS officials and burning and ransacking their houses, even those of Morales and his sister. For a while, the police and military did not stir, that is, until police mutinies started on Nov. 8.
The wealthy and racist Luis Camacho, leader of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, was the public face for the generalized assault. On Nov. 4, he demanded that Morales resign within 24 hours. The same day, the helicopter carrying Morales “incurred an accident” and hit the ground from 15 meters up. Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations Sacha Llorenti—a Morales supporter—reports that, “loyal members of [Morales’s] security team showed him messages in which people were offering them $50,000 if they would hand him over.” Morales was not safe.
The heavy lifting was next, and U.S. preparations bore fruit. The OAS report arrived on Nov. 10, and shortly thereafter, top Army General Williams Kaliman asked Morales to leave.
For decades, Latin American military personnel have received training and indoctrination at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As reported by analyst Jeb Sprague, “At least six of the key coup plotters are alumni of the infamous School of the Americas, while [General] Kaliman and another figure served in the past as Bolivia’s military and police attachés in Washington.”
Sprague adds that the commanders associated with the police mutinies received training at the Washington-based Latin American police exchange program known by its initials in Spanish as APALA.
Some preparations were recent and had to do with money. After Morales resigned, Kaliman himself also resigned and apparently moved to the United States. Sullkata M. Quilla of the Latin American Center for Strategic Analysis explains that Kaliman and other military chiefs each received $1 million and top police officers were paid out $500,000 each. U.S. Charge d’affaires Bruce Williamson allegedly arranged for the monetary transactions, which supposedly took place in Jujuy Province, in Argentina, under the auspices of Gov. Geraldo Morales. The story first appeared on the website Tvmundus.com.ar.
Other information compounding this story of a coup and bribery has surfaced. According to the respected Argentinean journalist Stella Cattaloni, Ivanka Trump arrived in Jujuy on Sept. 4-5 ostensibly to honor a small group of women entrepreneurs. She was accompanied, however, by “2,500 federal agents” and Undersecretary of State John Sullivan. As Ms. Trump was visiting in Jujuy, Gov. Geraldo Morales learned that the United States would be delivering $400 million to pay for improvements to a big highway in Argentina. Cattaloni also takes note of a freight train running through Jujuy on to Santa Cruz in Bolivia that she thinks might have carried military equipment to the coup plotters.
Conclusions are in order. First, a coup did take place in Bolivia, and the U.S. government had a big role in planning and facilitating it. The coup in Bolivia thus joins a long list of U.S. coups aimed at stabilizing the capitalist world order. This one took some doing, sort of like those in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973).
Beyond that, recent events in Bolivia serve as a reminder that to use elections alone to reach socialism or get rid of capitalism is problematic. The Bolivia experience shows that the police and military forces somehow have to be dealt with.
For good measure, we add more bits of information testifying to the U.S. government having engineered a coup:
1.) Prior to the Oct. 20 elections, President Morales charged that U.S. Embassy officials bribed people in the countryside to reject him at the polls. They traveled, for example, to the Yungas region on Oct. 16 with pay-offs to disaffected coca farmers.
2.) Weapons shipments from the United States arrived at the Chilean port of Iquique apparently on their way to a militarized political opposition group in Bolivia.
3.) The State Department allocated $100,000 to enable a company called “CLS Strategies” to mount a disinformation campaign through social media.
5.) Mariane Scott and Rolf A. Olson, U.S. Embassy officials in La Paz, met with diplomatic counterparts from Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina to coordinate destabilization efforts and “to deliver U.S. financing to local opposition forces.”
6.) For many years, the Santa Cruz Civic Committee and its proto-fascist Youth Union have received funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. According to analyst Eva Golinger, the USAID provided $84 million to Bolivian opposition groups.
7.) In mid-October, “political consultant” George Eli Birnbaun arrived in Santa Cruz from Washington with a team of military and civilian personnel. His job was to support the presidential candidacy of Oscar Ortiz, preferred by the U.S. government, and to “destabilize the country politically and socially after the elections.” He was providing support for Santa Cruz Civic Committee’s youth organization and also supervising the U.S.- financed “Standing Rivers” NGO, engaged in spreading disinformation.
8.) A collection of 16 audio recordings of the plotters’ pre-election conversations were leaked and then appeared on the internet. Several of the voices mentioned contacts with the U.S. Embassy and with U.S. Senators Ted Cruz, Robert Menendez, and Marco Rubio. Sprague reports that four of the ex-military plotters on the calls had attended the School of the Americas.