Janine Jackson: Listeners may have heard that rich person Elon Musk, challenged online the role his corporate need for lithium may have played in the US-backed coup in lithium-rich Bolivia, responded, “We will coup whoever we want. Deal with it.”
Funny thing, though: When President Evo Morales was forced out under military pressure last fall, US news media were insistent that it was not a coup at all, just the abrupt departure of a leader they never liked. Morales’s unconstitutional push out led to protests, violently repressed, from his indigienous and social movement bases.
CounterSpin spoke last November with Alex Main, director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. I began by asking him to address US media’s depiction of Evo Morales as deeply unpopular in Bolivia.
Alex Main: 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.
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 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 observing these 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.
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.