A coca leaf producer kneels leads with police to open the way so a march by backers of former President Evo Morales may continue to Cochabamba, Bolivia. Picture: AP Photo/Juan Karita
A coca leaf producer kneels leads with police to open the way so a march by backers of former President Evo Morales may continue to Cochabamba, Bolivia. Picture: AP Photo/Juan Karita

South Africa must learn the lessons from Bolivia’s coup

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Nov 17, 2019

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We are living in dangerous times. The mainstream news sources that many used to trust such as the New York Times and Reuters have knowingly or unknowingly allowed themselves to become instruments of the American regime change agenda, particularly in Latin America. That explains why some of our own South African journalists seem to be misreading what is really behind the recent coup d’etat in Bolivia. They are basing their analysis on the American mainstream media narrative, which has bought hook line and sinker the position of the right wing opposition in Bolivia, which not only has fascist roots, but is being backed by the White House. 

Where is the critical thinking and analysis, or the deeper understanding of the forces at play in Bolivia? This week some South African commentators said publicly that they don’t believe that there are always foreign agendas at play, and that according to their information, President Evo Morales had attempted to rig the election. That information comes directly from the American press which has very effectively weaved a narrative that has set public opinion firmly against one of the most progressive Presidents in Latin America.

When Morales came to power Bolivia was the poorest country in Latin America, but his social and economic policies drastically reduced poverty by 42% and extreme poverty by 60%. Morales was the first indigenous President after centuries of the indigenous population (which comprise over 60% of the population) being subjugated and politically and economically marginalised. 

Morales succeeded in developing a universal health care system, achieved 100% literacy, ensured women constituted 50% of elected parliamentarians, and nationalised natural resources so that multinational companies paid 82% of their profits as opposed to 18% to the state. It was this revenue that Morales used to better the life of his people. In 13 years Morales did for Bolivia was South Africa’s ruling party has wanted to accomplish for the past 25 years. 

Morales was hailed just last year by the Washington Post as one of the most popular world leaders who had turned his country around for the better with soaring economic growth and universal social services for the poor. The Financial Times recognised Morales as one of the most popular leaders in the world. 

The reality is that Morales won elections and a referendum over the past 13 years, many times with landslides. On October 20th this year he won re-election by more than 600,000 votes, giving him just above the 10% margin needed to defeat the opposition leader Carlos Mesa in the first round. But the American press claimed that he did not reach the 10% margin for victory. 

When Mesa realised that Morales was winning the first round he immediately called the elections fraudulent and encouraged street protests - a strategy which had been carefully worked out with the right wing fascist Luis Fernando Camacho. Camacho had been meeting with right wing governments in the region in the months prior to the election, discussing how to destabilised the Morales regime. He had even thanked Colombia, Brazil and the right wing opposition in Venezuela on twitter two months before the election. 

US government cables published by Wikileaks also revealed how Mesa (the opposition leader and former President with strong links to the US government) had corresponded with US officials on how to destabilise Morales.

The 40 year old Comacho is a millionaire who has never run for office, and is now being touted by the Western press as the “authentic face of the coup.” But it is critical to understand where Comacho comes from, what his ideology is, and what he and the right wing predatory elites are planning to do in Bolivia. In a few words - reverse everything that Morales accomplished since he came to power. 

Comacho is a known white supremacist, who is also an ultra-conservative Christian fundamentalist. He comes from a family of corporate elites who profited from the country’s gas reserves, who lost revenue when some companies were nationalised, and he has been named in the Panama Papers. Comacho emerged from the Santa Cruz Youth Union which is infamous for its Nazi-like salute, and is rabidly racist against the majority indigenous population. Camacho followers are known to burn Wiphala flags that symbolise the indigenous population. 

When Mesa started declaring the election fraudulent even before the last one million of the seven million ballots had been counted, Camacho’s supporters unleashed a wave of violence on the streets of Bolivia against anyone who looked indigenous. They also targeted politicians from the ruling party and journalists. The female mayor of Cochabamba, where Morales comes from, was viciously beaten and tortured in public. 

Comacho and his cohorts then proceeded to storm and ransack Morales’ residence, and played to the cameras by placing a bible over the presidential seal on the floor and bowed in prayer declaring, “we will return God to this burned palace.” It has long been Comacho’s mantra to purge the country’s native heritage from government. The self-proclaimed President Jeanine Anez Chavez, who took over following Morales’ forced resignation, articulated the racist nature of the recent coup when she tweeted, “I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rites. The city is not for Indians, let them go back to the highlands or the Chaco.”

But other than racism, capitalist greed, and a desire to neutralise an independent leader who pursued a successful socialist model, there is something else that has driven the regime change agenda in Bolivia. That is, of course, control of the country’s resources, and the desire to ensure that the exploitation of those resources goes to Western companies. Just as happened in a number of other cases around the world, when the government gave the contracts to exploit a vital resource to Chinese companies as opposed to Western ones, the plan to depose the incumbent leader became all the more urgent. 

Bolivia has 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, which is used in the batteries of electric cars, cell phones and laptops, and the demand for lithium is expected to double by 2025. The mining and processing of lithium is complex and requires intensive capital and technical expertise. Morales had demanded an equal partnership with Bolivian national companies, but a number of Western companies rejected such a partnership, but Chinese companies accepted. In recent years two contracts were signed for over US$3 billion for Lithium development with a Chinese and German company. After the residents of the Potosi region had protested in the area where the German company had hoped to set up its facilities, Morales had cancelled the contract with the German firm. This was one week before Morales was forced out of office.

US strategists have been interested in Bolivia’s Lithium since the 1960s, so there is little doubt that the control of the country’s resources fed into the perceived need to remove Morales from power. The previous strategy of the US had been the balkanization of Bolivia, and it had been reported that the US government was allegedly working with the Santa Cruz Committee - a separatist movement of elites who wanted to divorce Santa Cruz from the rest of the country. When the US and the Committee failed in their objectives, more extreme measures were adopted. 

In the end the Organisation of American States (OAS) worked to undermine Morales at a critical juncture following the October 20th poll. The OAS was founded by the US and is headquartered in Washington. During the Cold War the OAS was an alliance of right wing anti-communist governments in Latin America. Morales had agreed to the OAS auditing the results of the elections, but the organisation was quick to say that there were irregularities without providing any proof. In the end the regime change forces won the day and Morales was forced from office and flew to Mexico with his top officials, as their lives were in danger. 

There is only one thing left to say. Cry the beloved country.

*Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor.

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