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Oppose the Military Coup in Bolivia. Spare Us Your “Critiques”

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

It would be hard to point to a country whose president has more democratic legitimacy than Evo Morales. Nobody can seriously dispute that he won the first round of the presidential election on October 20 by a landslide. He received 47% of the vote in an election with 88% turnout, as most polls predicted. That doubles the percentage of the eligible vote that US presidents generally receive. I’ll say a bit more about that below, but it’s crucial to note that he was elected to his present term (which does not expire until January) with 61% of the vote in an election with roughly the same turnout.

Morales’ recent “resignation” came at the point of a gun.  He fled to Mexico whose government offered him asylum. The unelected military and police forced him out. Generals openly “suggested” that he resign and both the police and military made clear that they were not going to defend him from armed opponents.  Most of the democratically elected members of congress are now in hiding.  As in all military coups, it has come with a media blackout to help the security forces brutally suppress protests.

If you support democracy, then you call on Bolivia’s security forces to let Morales return and finish out his term. You call on them to do their job, which is to protect all elected representatives and everybody’s right to free expression and peaceful protest. That’s their only legitimate function. You should also call on your own government to refuse to recognize any “authorities” in Bolivia who stand in the way of Morales’ return and who seek to criminalize his political movement.

No matter how popular a president, there will be a segment of the population who dislike him or her – and a hardcore segment willing to lynch the president if the police and military would let them. If you think US presidents are protected from this nightmare scenario because they have more legitimacy than Morales then you don’t understand your own country. The fact that prominent people as supposedly diverse politically as Trump, the New York Times editorial board, and Human Rights Watch (with varying degrees of bluntness) have helped support the coup in Bolivia is an indication of how shallow support for democracy really is in US political culture. Alan McLeod pointed out in FAIR that the western media has done its part to support the coup by refusing to call it what it is. Here is a petition to the New York Times asking it to retract an editorial that endorsed the coup.

But didn’t Morales make “bad moves”?

In 2016, Morales tried to abolish term limits through a referendum but lost it by two percentage points.  A year later Bolivia’s elected Supreme Court (which is elected to a six-year term) ruled that term limits are unconstitutional and thereby nullified the results of the referendum. The ruling was debatable, but not outrageous like many Supreme Court rulings around the world have been. Citizens United comes to mind. The Supreme Court ruling that Handed George W. Bush the US presidency in 2000. The Honduran Supreme Court ruling in 2009 that effectively outlawed a non-binding opinion poll and thereby sparked a military coup from which Honduras has yet to recover.

Also, Bolivians who disliked that ruling had many democratic and constitutional ways to reverse it. They could vote in a new Supreme Court (US citizens can’t) or simply vote Morales and his allies in the legislature out of office – which they didn’t.

Principal aside, was it tactically dumb of Morales to run again? Perhaps, but it’s easier to raise other tactical questions that are much more important.

Why did he allow OAS bureaucrats who are 60% US-funded to have any role in monitoring the election? An analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) showed that the OAS has no basis for impugning the results. Kevin Cashman has elaborated on why the “preliminary audit” issued by the OAS weeks later was similarly baseless.

It is not the first time OAS bureaucrats have impugned a clean election to devastating effect as Mark Weisbrot pointed out in the Nation. In 2000, it helped unjustly discredit legislative elections in Haiti. That helped justify harsh US sanctions which were followed ultimately by a US-perpetrated military coup in 2004. Since then, Haiti has never had elections as free and fair as the ones they had in 2000. In 2011, the OAS struck again and inexcusably changed election results in Haiti.

Why did Morales let them near the election?  If he didn’t that would be grounds for his enemies – with Washington’s backing – to say he wanted to rig the election. US sanctions- which don’t require a credible pretext or respect for international law – would likely have followed. He may well have calculated that his popularity and achievements in office would be more than enough to offset OAS corruption. If so, he was wrong.

Why didn’t he do a better job of getting the military under control? He obviously should have done better on that front, but worth remembering how such moves are demonized in the western media and by local adversaries.  That would especially true if he had made use of Cuban expertise for example. What about arming his supporters in militias? Same problem.

We are the problem

Name a democratically elected president overthrown by a US-backed coup who was not flawed in some way, or whose hard core opponents, even though clearly a minority, were unable to put a lot of protesters on the streets? That list could obviously not include Goulart, Allende, Aristide, Arbenz, Chavez, Zelaya, or anybody who failed to walk on water.

An honest look at Morales tactical dilemmas shows that the political culture of the US and its top allies is the big problem facing any democracy in the Global South.  Democratic legitimacy does very little to protect you when the US and its propaganda apparatus target you for destruction. The coup against Morales should be an incredibly easy one for any “progressive” to unreservedly oppose – and by oppose I mean demand Morales finish off his term. People eager to highlight their “critiques” of Morales are part of the problem.

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Joe Emersberger is a writer based in Canada whose work has appeared in Telesur English, ZNet and CounterPunch.

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