Looking back, looking ahead: lessons from the November 2019 U.S.-backed coup in Bolivia

Real solidarity with Bolivia’s Indigenous popular democracy requires us to do more than celebrate its revival. We must work to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy.

Source: Prensa Latina

By Natalia Burdyńska Schuurman (Program Coordinator)

In October of 2020, the Movement Towards Socialism (acronymed MAS in Spanish) returned to power 11 months after the U.S.-backed far-right coup regime of Jeanine Áñez ousted Evo Morales and his government during Bolivia’s November 2019 elections. The MAS party restored majority control over Bolivia’s legislature, and MAS candidate Luis Arce won the presidential election by a landslide victory, earning about 55% of the vote against the two main anti-MAS candidates, center-right ex-president Carlos Mesa (who received almost 29%) and far-right Luis Camacho (who received only 14%).

The right-wing opposition had expected the vote to be close enough to force a run-off election, in which the hope was that the anti-MAS vote would consolidate to elect Mesa over Arce. But Arce won an absolute majority — and with a record-high voter turnout of 88.4% (compare that to the United States’ record-high voter turnout of 66.7% during the November 2020 election), there was no room left for dispute. 

Arce’s victory has been acknowledged by leaders of multiple opposition fronts, including runner-up candidate Mesa, the coup regime’s self-declared president, Jeanine Áñez, and even the Organization of American States (OAS) — whose unsubstantiated allegations of fraud during the November 2019 elections had served as the main pretext for the far-right to carry out its coup. Even ex-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Arce, inviting his administration to engage with the U.S. on “matters of mutual interest.” 

The results of October’s election provided vindication for the Movement Towards Socialism, once again proving itself to be the legitimate ruling political party of the Bolivian people. Since the rise of the MAS party in the early 2000s as the vanguard of the anti-neoliberal Indigenous popular movement that had taken root in the 90s, it’s become very clear that there still exists no right-wing political party or broad front capable of contesting MAS state power through the electoral process. But as the violent far-right coup that took place during the country’s November 2019 elections has most recently demonstrated, the possibility of another direct and organized insurrection continues to threaten the stability of democracy and Indigenous popular rule in Bolivia.

It’s happened before (many times), and there’s no reason to believe it will not happen again. History paints a picture of recurring political instability in Bolivia: the country has experienced at least 185 regime changes, most of which were coups. This became particularly systemic by the second half of the twentieth century, when the U.S. State Department ramped up its efforts to train right-wing Latin American military dictatorships to carry out illicit counter-insurgency and state terror against left-wing popular movements for the protection of U.S. economic and geopolitical interests in the Southern Cone in an anti-communist political repression campaign known as Operation Condor. By the 1960s, at least 1,200 Bolivian military officials (including 20 of 23 senior officers) had been trained by the U.S.-based School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation — WHINSEC).

Even in the age of advanced popular democracy in Bolivia, the armed forces remain permeable to right-wing infiltration and influence made possible by interventionist U.S. foreign policy and institutions. Findings related to the composition of military leadership behind the November 2019 coup and its connections to the U.S. State Department illustrate this reality. According to research associate Jeb Sprague, “the role of military and police officials trained by the U.S. was pivotal in forcing regime change” during its November 2019 coup. At least six of the key coup plotters are alumni of the School of the Americas — including the commander of Bolivia’s military, Williams Kaliman, who has also served as a military attache of Bolivia’s embassy in the U.S. capital. Other top commanders who helped launch the coup have participated in the contemporary APALA police exchange program, whose purpose today is to build relations between U.S. authorities (among them FBI, DEA, and ICE agents) and police officials in Latin America. 

As early as mid-November of 2020, President Arce removed the military officials who had been involved in the coup and appointed new military leadership to Bolivia, who pledged to “guarantee the stability of our government elected by the sovereign will.” This was especially reassuring around a time when footage had allegedly surfaced of what appears to be a serving Bolivian soldier claiming that Interior Minister Arturo Murillo was conspiring with army generals in a plot to massacre Indigenous people and launch a coup, in the case that MAS won the election. The unidentified soldier also claimed that Murillo had armed paramilitaries with weapons and ammunition supplied by the U.S.

Even so, the threat of another right-wing regime change attempt down the road persists. The removal of dangerous military leadership, however critical in the short-term, will not stop sustained efforts from the U.S. State Department to build opportunistic alliances with existing Bolivian military leadership. We should not underestimate the influential role of the APALA police exchange program. According to its own Facebook page, APALA was created with the specific objective of “generating, promoting, and strengthening ties of solidarity, friendship, and cooperation and support between the members of the group and their families.” As Jeb Sprague has described, “despite its influence, or perhaps because of it, the program [APALA] maintains little public presence.” Its low-profile engagement with military and police officials in U.S. client states throughout the continent speaks volumes: APALA currently hosts police attaches from 9 other countries in the region (Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, Peru, Mexico and the Dominican Republic).

If another regime change initiative in Bolivia is on its way, it will be covert, and it will require a long-term commitment from all of its proponents. It will take time for the U.S.-backed anti-MAS opposition to lay the groundwork for another military coup. The November 2019 coup that deposed Evo Morales and installed the far-right Áñez regime had been carefully planned for years by right-wing political figures (among them October 2020 presidential candidates Carlos Mesa and Luis Camacho) and civil society leaders in regular communication with U.S. intelligence officials. According to leaked audio recordings, key plotters in the coup had discussed plans to set government buildings ablaze and get pro-business unions to carry out strikes, among other tactics aimed at generating a state of chaos and insecurity to help undermine public trust in the leftist administration’s capacity to rule and justify a military intervention (not unlike those carried out by truck drivers in Chile against Allende in 1973 with the support of the AFL-CIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development and the CIA). The coup was brought full circle when top officials in the Bolivian military called for Evo Morales to resign in response to unfounded accusations of electoral fraud made by the OAS, making room for the far-right Áñez regime to replace his administration. 

One common thread connects the OAS to right-wing opposition leadership at the civil society level in Bolivia: their collaboration with the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which has sent around $1 million in funds to anti-MAS civil society organizations in Bolivia since 2018 and remains “continuously engaged at the regional level” with the OAS. The OAS works to establish cooperation agreements with NED-supported civil society organizations by “facilitating” their participation in General Assembly discourse and decision-making through their selective registration in the Summit of the Americas Process. The OAS and the NED have been formally engaging civil society leadership in Bolivia since at least 1996, around the same time MAS was growing as a movement in Eastern Bolivia. The first OAS-sponsored Summit on Sustainable Development was held in the (predominantly castizo) economic powerhouse and right-wing stronghold of Santa Cruz — just a year after Indigenous rural workers convened a congress there that resulted in the formation of the Assembly for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (of which Evo Morales was a founding member).

It’s reasonable to suspect that Bolivia’s anti-MAS opposition coalition is biding its time for the right opportunity to attempt another right-wing coup for the implementation of neoliberal regime change. There’s a lot at stake economically for the Bolivian business elite, foreign investors and western imperialism: in addition to its major oil and gas reserves and its tin industry, Bolivia holds about 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves. Lithium is a highly demanded natural resource used for the mass production of today’s batteries and electronics. The driving force behind the November 2019 coup was most likely Morales’ $2.5 billion trade deal with China for the development of lithium mining. In the weeks preceding Bolivia’s November 2019 elections, Morales had cancelled the one contract Bolivia had with a German company, in response to popular demand. The contract that remained stipulated that China would partner with COMIBOL (the Bolivian National Mining Company) and YLB (Bolivia’s national lithium company), leaving private investors, transnational corporations and U.S./NATO ally states out of the development plans. Since the coup that took place in November 2019, Bolivia’s lithium industry has been largely up for grabs. The question of ownership over this natural resource and its consequences for the flow of global capital will continue to influence the power struggle between the U.S.-backed anti-MAS opposition and the popular leftist government.

While the October 2020 elections marked a milestone for popular democracy and Indigenous-rooted class struggle in Bolivia, we should celebrate this success with an understanding that democracy is fragile. Left-wing internationalists should be very concerned about the possibility of another neoliberal regime change attempt in Bolivia, especially if the Arce Administration continues the economic trajectory of the Morales Administration (which it likely will, given it was Arce who had served as the administration’s Minister of Economy and Public Affairs). We must remain vigilant about the ways in which U.S. bipartisan imperialist foreign policy continues to bolster efforts to undermine popular rule in Bolivia. We must recognize that a grassroots movement for real democracy and global justice requires the U.S. left to go beyond advocating for the defunding of its own repressive police forces and fight continuously for the demilitarization of U.S. foreign policy and dismantling of the U.S. military-industrial complex — the most dangerous threat to the sovereign right of the people of Bolivia and everywhere to self-determination, peace, and international relations based on respect.