Thirteen of us squeezed into Congressman Jim McGovern’s small office in Northampton, Massachusetts, far outnumbering the number of chairs available. At the head of the table sat Koby Gardner-Levine, the congressman’s Northampton district representative. Outside, a couple dozen more stood in the near-freezing temperature chanting, “Evo, amigo, el pueblo está contigo” (Evo, brother, the people are with you), holding signs that read “Say no to the coup!” and “Hands off Bolivia.”
The delegation—represented by various local community groups and leaders—organized in response to the November 10 coup in Bolivia three days earlier. Though some say that Morales voluntarily resigned, it is important to note that he did so at the behest of commander-in-chief of Bolivia’s armed forces General Williams Kaliman—“at the point of a gun,” as local activist Marty Nathan pointed out at a second delegation to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Springfield office on November 18.
By Tuesday, November 12, former senator Jeanine Áñez Chávez had declared herself president with the blessing of the military, and in direct violation of the country’s constitution. Entering the presidential palace with an oversized Bible, she loudly declared, “The Bible has come back to the [presidential] palace, god bless us!” On November 14, Áñez signed decree 4078, abdicating the military of responsibility for violence when participating in “operations for the restoration of internal order and public stability.” The next day, on November 15, soldiers and police perpetrated a massacre in Sacaba, Cochabamba, that killed nine and injured hundreds.
Since the October 20 election, the violence encouraged by the opposition party has claimed the lives of at least 32 people (though the numbers are rising rapidly) and has been responsible for hundreds of injuries and over 1,000 arrests.
At McGovern’s office, the demands of the delegation were clear: publicly condemn the coup and U.S. involvement, sponsor a resolution in Congress condemning the coup, and condemn the abuse of human rights fomented by the right wing and the self-appointed coup government.
A few minutes into the meeting with District Representative Gardner-Levine, Congressman McGovern would call in to speak with the group and read them a tweet he had already drafted condemning the coup. “The time for military coups, in Latin America or elsewhere, is over,” stated the congressman. Within five minutes, the tweet would be live on the congressman’s account.
The Tentacles of the United States in Bolivia’s Coup
As noted by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, the ousting of Morales fits within a much longer history of coups in Bolivia (1964, 1970, 1980, and—most recently—2019) and of U.S. intervention.
Bolivia has been a source of enrichment for the West for centuries; the silver that flowed from its veins funded the development and expansion of industrialized nations, and today it holds up to 70 percent of the world’s lithium, a key material in batteries for hybrid cars, cell phones, and other electronics. The most recent coup in Bolivia fits neatly within the continuation of centuries of pillage and the struggle for geopolitical control over the country and its resources.
As Kevin Young, assistant professor of Latin American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies Bolivia, explained to Congressman McGovern at the November 13 delegation, “We don’t have the details of what exactly the United States has been doing. We do know that Trump, [Senator Marco] Rubio, and others have come out and publicly praised the coup. … Behind the scenes, they may be doing other things. We know that they are funding the right-wing opposition. We don’t know all of the diplomatic machinations that are taking place behind the scenes. Our concern first and foremost is the role of the United States.”
McGovern remains among a small handful of U.S. representatives to condemn the coup—a group that includes Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN), Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Rep. Ro Khanna (CA), and Rep. Adriano Espaillat (NY). On November 22, Congressman McGovern was among 14 House members who signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo firmly stating that the “developments in Bolivia … bear the hallmarks of a military coup d’état” and imploring Pompeo and the Trump administration to “consider an immediate change in course and to take action to support democracy and human rights in Bolivia.”
The more common response, however, has ranged from silence on the issue to direct support of the coup. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly endorsed Áñez, stating, “I applaud Bolivian Interim President Jeanine Áñez for assuming this role at a time of great responsibility where there is a need to restore order and maintain civilian leadership in Bolivia.” A similar sentiment was echoed by Senator Marco Rubio, who alleged that Morales is “working from [asylum in] Mexico to undermine peaceful democratic transition in Bolivia [and g]ot Cuba[,] Venezuela & Nicaragua to arm protestors in Cochabamba.”
In a statement celebrating the coup, President Trump—like Rubio—linked the Morales administration to Venezuela, which he (and his predecessors) have sought to undermine since the inauguration of Hugo Chávez in 1999: “[the events in Bolivia] send a strong signal to the illegitimate regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua that democracy and the will of the people will always prevail. We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere.”
Trump’s linking of Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua—an expansion of the so-called “troika of tyranny”—unveils a key driver of the U.S. support behind the coup: the coup, and the U.S. support behind it, fit into a longer process to undermine leftist governments in the region that threaten the interests of the U.S., its allies, and transnational corporations. Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia have—until now—remained strongholds in the region that have put national sovereignty before the interests of imperialists; it is these strongholds that the U.S. has long sought to topple.
While the evidence and depth of the United States’ involvement in the coup in Bolivia are still being unearthed, so far we can point to at least a few key pieces of evidence:
+ Williams Kaliman—the military general who called on Morales to resign, and who has overseen brutal state repression—studied at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2004. WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas, played a key role in training military generals in the spate of anti-democratic coups in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Other key players in the coup have also been linked to WHINSEC.
+ The Organization of American States (OAS) has been among the main forces in justifying the coup by spreading unsubstantiated claims about electoral fraud. The U.S. funds 60 percent of the OAS budget and plays an influential role in the organization.
+ A North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) report from 2009 shows longstanding funding of opposition political parties by USAID: “the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has invested more than $97 million in ‘decentralization’ and ‘regional autonomy’ projects and opposition political parties in Bolivia since 2002, showing USAID has funded and fomented separatist projects promoted by regional governments in Eastern Bolivia.”
+ A vehicle from the U.S. Embassy (license plate 28-CD-17) was seen participating in the police operation in which four Cuban medics were detained, as reported by the president of Telesur, Patricia Villegas Marín, and Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s minister of foreign affairs, though it is unclear what the vehicle was doing.
In the eyes of the United States and its presiding war hawks, Morales’ Bolivia is a pesky remnant from the era of the “Pink Tide”—a wave of left-leaning governments in Latin America from the 1990s to early 2000s that dared to confront the unabated interests of transnational corporations and imperialist governments—a lonely island among a series of what today range from neofascist to dedicated neoliberal governments, from Brazil to Chile to Argentina.
Bolivia’s pre-coup story of success—both in its economic indicators and in its measures of the general well-being of its population—provides an uncomfortable counterpoint to the neoliberal narrative and policy slate of its neighbors, whose citizens have suffered as a result. To overthrow the Morales administration is to dent the regional struggle for sovereignty, a domino in the United States’ quest for geopolitical control.
Celina della Croce is a coordinator at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research as well as an organizer, activist, and advocate for social justice. Prior to joining Tricontinental Institute, she worked in the labor movement with the Service Employees Union and the Fight for 15, organizing for economic, racial and immigrant justice.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.