‘Years From Now, It’ll Be Clear to Everyone There Was a Coup in Bolivia’

21 November 2019 — FAIR

CounterSpin interview with Alex Main on Bolivia coup

Janine Jackson interviewed CEPR’s Alex Main about the Bolivian coup for the November 15, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

NYT: Bolivia's Leader Resigns, Heeding Protesters' Call

New York Times print edition (11/11/19)

Janine Jackson: When a president announces his involuntary resignation—after weeks of law enforcement mutiny backed by armed forces and the public urging of military commanders—the way to convey that is not to say that the president “stepped down,” “left office” or had an “abrupt departure.” Yet that is what elite US media are telling the public about events in Bolivia, where Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, was forced out of office after weeks of protests around supposed irregularities in the most recent election.

The magazine Foreign Policy stated, “It’s not a coup in any sense of the word, and Bolivia and Latin America have experience with actual coups.” Although not enough, apparently; just last year, Foreign Policy ran a piece headlined, “It’s Time for a Coup in Venezuela.”

After Morales and the vice president, other officials—citing threats to their families—stepped down in succession, and now, as we record on November 14, a second vice president of the senate, Jeanine Áñez, has declared herself president—with a Bible no less—and the State Department says they are looking forward to working with her.

Events in Bolivia are in flux. Here to ground us a little is Alex Main, director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Alex Main.

Alex Main: Thank you, Janine; it’s good to be back.

JJ: Definitions do matter, but setting that aside for the moment, what comes through clearly in US media coverage is the idea that Evo Morales was so unpopular after 14 years in office, so deeply unliked, that he had to jigger the constitution to try and stay in office. I wanted to ask you, first, just to talk a little bit about Morales’ tenure to date, and actual public opinion in Bolivia.

AM: Well, sure. I think the polls in the country gave a pretty good idea of his popularity. And, in fact, what’s interesting in terms of the media coverage is that you saw a real shift, where some of the initial coverage—you can look at the Washington Post, for instance, just before the elections took place—were pretty much announcing that this is a done deal, that Evo Morales is most likely going to win these elections, quite possibly in the first round of the elections that took place on October 20.

AS/COA: Poll Tracker: Bolivia's 2019 Presidential RaceAmericas Society/Council of Americas (10/18/19)

And, of course, there’s a good explanation for that: The economy of Bolivia is doing really well, particularly compared to other economies of Latin America. And Evo Morales’ policies over the 13 years that he’s been president have been very successful in reducing poverty, in reducing inequality, in improving infrastructure throughout the country.

Now, of course, there is a strong opposition. But that opposition, in the last few elections, has failed to overturn him, get him out of the presidency, or really manage to have a significant opposition even within the congress of the country. So the polls that came out give us a good sense of where Evo Morales stands in terms of public opinion. But then the media narrative shifted quite dramatically in the following days.

JJ: Yeah, and now the line, strange as it is, seems to be that, “Well, it wasn’t a coup, but even if it was, that’s OK, because there were serious irregularities in the election,” as if that would somehow justify a coup.

But I wonder if you can talk us through what people are reading were the groundings for this widespread protest and for the military intervention, which is that somehow Morales or his people fiddled with this most recent election. What can you tell us, including from CEPR’s work, we should know about that?

Alex MainAlex Main: “The Organization of American States and much of the major media misled public opinion as to what was happening with these elections.”

AM: I think what you need to know is that there are two groups that didn’t do their job around this, in terms of really informing public opinion.

The first group was the Organization of American States, that was down in Bolivia observingthese elections, and that produced a communiqué the day after the elections, in which they said that there had been a “drastic change in the trend” in the electronic vote count, the quick count that was taking place, and that it was unexplainable that there had been such a drastic shift in the trend.

This particular statement was very easy to debunk. You didn’t really need a think tank like ours to do that; I think anyone who really looked at the election results carefully could do it. You could see that there wasn’t a drastic shift in the results, and that also the shifts that you saw towards the end of the election, which the OAS was referring to—and there was a progressive shift in favor of Evo Morales that widened his margin—he had originally had, I think, 83% of the quick vote count, about 7 points ahead of the closest contender, Carlos Mesa, and gradually, with the remaining votes that came in, the margin increased to over 10 points, which was what was needed for Evo Morales to win in the first round.

And that was entirely explainable. In fact, it’s what we saw in previous elections; it’s pure geography: The areas of the country that reported the results last were the areas of the country that happened to be poorer, more remote, and much, much more favorable, traditionally, to Evo Morales. So it was quite normal that the margin shifted in his favor. So this was a really misleading statement that had absolutely no basis, that came from the OAS.

And then that had a huge influence on the second group that I would say misled public opinion, and that’s, of course, the media, the mainstream media, that took these statements from the OAS at face value, and ran with them, didn’t even try to form any kind of assessment of their own as to the value of these statements, and did two things: one, gave these statements complete credit. We and other folks, independent statisticians, were pointing out that these statements made no sense; they didn’t take that into consideration at all. The OAS is the voice of authority and they left it at that. Secondly, the media decided that references to what was the electronic vote count, quick vote count—which was not the official vote count of the election—was the same thing as the official vote count.

So there was this sort of confusion (I think some of the media was genuinely confused); they focused on the fact that there had been an “interruption” in the reporting of the quick vote count, which, by the way, was something that had been anticipated to begin with. They pointed to that and said, “OK, well, then that means that the integrity of the vote count is in question,” when, of course, the official vote count that had been occurring—and that’s a much more lengthy and meticulous count, and took place over four days—was never interrupted. And there was never anything from the Organization of American States or anybody else that suggested that there was really a problem with that vote count process.

So again, the Organization of American States and much of the major media misled public opinion as to what was happening with these elections, and created this belief that there had been severe irregularities in the vote count. And that, gradually, in terms of the media coverage, became something portrayed as fraud and stolen elections, even though there’s no evidence pointing to that at all.

JJ: Well, but if you tell people who are unhappy with an election outcome, “Well, that was due to fraud,” you’re bound to get a response, particularly if you are a powerful entity like the United States, like the OAS, saying, “Yeah, you shouldn’t accept that result.”

So now we get protests in Bolivia. And how would you describe those initial protests, and take us through the timeline in between the start of those protests and Morales’ “resignation”?

AM: What happened with these protests is that they were by and large in urban areas, they were largely middle-class protests. They definitely grew after October 21, and, I would say, after the misleading statements from the Organization of American States came out. This legitimized discourse from the opposition, which was that these elections were fraudulent, and that really galvanized the protest movement, and it turned violent. Some of that violence was oriented towards the voting centers, and the voting authority, and there were voting centers that ended up damaged, ransacked. Voting material, including ballots, were destroyed, which, of course, made it more difficult to audit the elections afterwards.

And there was also violence directed at supporters and leaders of the Movement Toward Socialism or MAS, Evo Morales’ political party, and towards indigenous people writ large. So there was also a racist element to these protests.

They grew more and more out of hand, and then you had police mutinies that were staged, I would say, Thursday, Friday, Saturday of last week, in which the police forces in some of the biggest cities in Bolivia, including Cochabamba and La Paz, declared themselves in mutiny, and refused to intervene against any of the violent protests that were taking place. Of course, this opened the door to more chaos. And then what really sealed the deal was the fact that the military then came out, the high command of the military, said that they would not intervene against the police. So at that point, you had a complete breakdown, I would say, in law enforcement in the country, and particularly in terms of dealing with the more violent elements of these protests.

And, finally, you had the high command of the military that called on Evo Morales to resign. Of course, that’s when we really could see that a coup was taking place. And shortly afterwards, Evo Morales and the vice president of the country, Álvaro García Linera, announced that they were resigning. In their announcement, they also made very clear that a coup was occurring. Afterwards, they went into hiding, and the next day managed to get on a plane, with some difficulty, but managed to get on a plane to Mexico, where they were offered asylum, and where they are now located, whereas some of the other leadership from the MAS party was holed up in the Mexican embassy and also offered asylum.

NYT: Evo Morales Is Gone. Bolivia’s Problems Aren’t.

New York Times (11/11/19)

So very much a military coup, reminiscent in some ways of the coup in Honduras in June of 2009, a military coup where the president was taken out of the country, the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. And, similar to back then, even though everyone, I think, at this point is clear that there was a coup in Honduras in June of 2009, back then you also had this sort of debate in the media as to whether or not it was a coup.

And I think in part it had to do with the ambivalent position of, at that time, the Obama administration. And now we’re seeing, of course, from the Trump administration, a position that’s not even ambivalent, that’s fully supportive of the coup that’s occurred. Of course, they’re not calling it a coup. And I think that sets the frame for a lot of the media coverage, which is also failing to call it a coup, and in some cases, such as the New York Times, in an editorial that was published just three days ago, celebrating what has happened in Bolivia as a step forward for democracy.

JJ: I wanted to ask you about the US role. How would the United States feel about an economically successful Latin American country run by an indigenous man and a party called the Movement Towards Socialism? What has been the US role with regard to the Morales administration, and then with regard to this coup?

AM: The relations between the two countries—between the two governments, I should say—have been very bad for quite a long time, and this stemmed from the US, through its diplomats, and particularly through its ambassador that was in Bolivia at the time in 2008, supporting violent protests. Again, this took place in August-September of 2008, when you had the ambassador who met with some of the hardline protest leaders that were encouraging protests that were also very racist, and going after indigenous peoples and MAS leaders and so on. This led to a break in diplomatic relations. The US ambassador was kicked out of Bolivia and, of course, the US reciprocated. They haven’t had ambassador-level relations since then.

And, of course, in terms of its own domestic and foreign policies, Bolivia has really gone in a different direction from that that the US government has wanted to see. And they did away with US assistance to not be reliant on that. So US AID ended up leaving the country, at the request of the Evo Morales government. And then, of course, Evo Morales was close to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and other left-wing leaders in the region.

And so I think, whether under the George W. Bush administration or the Obama administration, the US government really saw the Bolivian government of Evo Morales as an adversary in the region, and sought to undermine Evo Morales, probably not as actively as the government in Venezuela but still, I think, fairly actively, certainly in multilateral settings.

But what’s happened with these last elections is that you’ve had the Organization of American States that’s there observing. They’ve observed elections in Bolivia before; there were no real issues. But I think there was a sense of an opportunity now with these elections, and the fact that there was some controversy around the elections, due to the fact that Evo Morales was standing for another term. And the constitution allowed him two terms; he was standing for a third term under this constitution. Of course, that had been authorized and was legal because of a court decision. But, ultimately, you had a sector of the population that was riled up about that. And that was part of what was behind the protest movement.

So you already had a context of some social tension that was there, that the US took advantage of, and they did that in large part through the Organization of American States. And you saw a great deal of coordination between the Organization of American States’ electoral mission and statements and the statements of the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, and the statements and positions coming from the State Department and the White House throughout this whole episode, which shifted from “There needs to be a runoff election” to “There need to be completely new elections” to supporting the forced resignation, under military pressure, of Evo Morales, to supporting a coup.

So you had both the US and the Organization of American States that were very much in line and, of course, the US has an enormous influence within the Organization of American States and provides something like 60% of its funding, not to mention that the Organization of American States is located in the middle of Washington, DC, just next to the US State Department.

AP: Bolivia's Declared Interim President Faces Challenges

AP (via Voice of America, 11/13/19)

JJ: And that brings us up to now, where we have protests by indigenous people against the coup in Bolivia, and also, as you noted, attacks on MAS representatives and serious unrest.

And we have also Jeanine Áñez, who was a lower-level official, now saying, “I’m the president now.” And the Associated Press has a headline saying, “Bolivia’s Declared Interim President Faces challenges,” not noting that [she’s] declared by herself, you know, and we’re hearing from the State Department, which just got through supporting the coup, has a statement, at least from one official, saying, “We look forward to working with Jeanine Áñez.” Is that legal? Now we have someone stepping forward, it sounds a lot like Venezuela, someone saying, “Oh, you know what, call me president now.”

AM: No, it’s absolutely not legal. So you could consider that as sort of the second part of the coup, the first part being the forced resignation, under military pressure, of the president and vice president, and also other officials that were in the constitutional succession to be president. They were all under threat. They were being threatened personally, or their families were being threatened, and then they either left the country or went into hiding. But at any rate, that was a military coup right there. And then, when you had Jeanine Áñez, who stepped up in the senate and declared herself president, that was also a coup.

You had, of course, in the constitutional line of succession, the president of the senate, that would have eventually become president. However, she, Jeanine Áñez, was not the president of the senate; she belonged to the minority opposition party in the senate. And she took advantage of the fact that the legislators of both houses were not there, were in hiding, weren’t able to assist in the discussion, so there was no quorum. So she spoke before a plenary that wasn’t a quorum. I was not legal; you didn’t have enough members of the senate that were present. And declared herself president of the senate, before then saying, “OK, if I’m president of the senate, then that makes me president of the country.”

And I think what really made it clear what this was all about was when you had the military high command, one of the officers in the military high command, who was the one who put the presidential sash around the body of Jeanine Áñez, in place, of course, of the outgoing president.

Those are the sorts of things that the media have not described in what’s happened: the very unconstitutional nature of this presidential succession. Most of the articles that we’re seeing now coming from most of the media are just describing Jeanine Áñez as the interim president, period, and not even mentioning the fact that there might be some debate as to her legitimacy as an interim president.

Foreign Policy: It's Time for a Coup in Venezuela

Foreign Policy (6/5/18)

JJ: Even when US media talk about what’s going on, the words they use to emphatically say—for example, Foreign Policy, which said, this isn’t a coup by any understanding of it. Their subhead on their article that called for a coup in Venezuela said, “Only nationalists in the military can restore a legitimate constitutional democracy.” Now, that’s them talking about Venezuela, but it’s an indication that words don’t mean what you might think they mean when you’re reading US media’s foreign policy coverage, you know? It’s just kind of a topsy-turvy world in elite US media, when we’re trying to understand what’s going on in Latin America, certainly.

AM: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s, again, very reminiscent of Honduras in 2009. At that time, you had a lot of the media commentators that were pointing out that Manuel Zelaya had been trying to change the constitution, supposedly because he wanted to stay president indefinitely, and so on. And so then saying, “Well, then, it wasn’t really a coup.” And you’re seeing something similar now because of this debate over Evo Morales’s re-election, which, again, was legal, which was approved by the courts, but they’re using that debate to say, “Well, you know, it wasn’t even really legitimate for him to be running in these elections,” leaving aside the fact that he was most certainly still the president of the country until January 20, until the end of his term, and that he’d been forcibly removed from office.

And I think we’re going to have a similar situation where today, no one really questions the fact that there was a coup in Honduras. I think, weeks, months, maybe years from now, it’ll be clear to everyone that there was a coup in Bolivia, but by then, it will be too late. Public opinion will have only been awoken long after the coup has occurred, and people will not be mobilizing, I think, as they should, to put pressure on the US government, on the US Congress and so on, to do the right thing, and to denounce and work to undo the coup that’s just occurred in Bolivia.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Alex Main. He’s the director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Their work on Bolivia and on other issues is online at cepr.net. Alex Main, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AM: Thank you, Janine.

One thought on “‘Years From Now, It’ll Be Clear to Everyone There Was a Coup in Bolivia’

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