21st-Century Powder Keg: How Bolivia’s Military Coup Puts South American Democracies At Risk

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The United States has an unfortunate history of inserting itself into any region that contains a coveted resource. From our expansion into Mexican-owned lands in the 1800s for gold to our incessant perpetuation of Middle Eastern conflicts for oil, our desire for commodities has not been lost on the rest of the world. 

That is, until November of 2019.

It’s no secret that Latin America has its fair share of democratic backsliding governments. Despite the unfortunate political atmosphere of the continent, however, many nations have managed to create successful and covetable democracies. One of the most notable of these countries is Bolivia.

Boasting a majority-indigineous population and breathtaking landscape, Bolivia has long been the beacon of hope for South American politics. Under the fourteen-year rule of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigineous socialist president, Bolivia has enjoyed extreme economic growth and prosperity. Coming into their 2019 presidential election, Bolivia was poised to continue to be the model for a successful democracy in South America.

After voting day, however, something appeared particular to the Bolivian authorities. Morales, who holds majority support with the indigineous and rural populations, gained a lead over other candidates only after 95 percent of votes had been counted. This shift in late-counted votes led many to believe that some fraud had been involved in the election. The new vote totals, coupled with his wishes to seek a controversial fourth term, left Morales threatened by unhappy voters and forced to flee Bolivia.

On the surface, the Bolivia case seems relatively cut and dry—an incumbent, wanting more power, fabricated votes in order to remain in office and was caught trying to get away with it. However, the acceptance of this assumption has directly led to the deterioration of the Bolivian democracy—and perhaps democracies across South America.

The Organization of American States conducted research on Morales’ supposed fraud. This group, which portrays itself as a benevolent arbiter of democratic justice, is meant to maintain a beneficial balance between all countries in the Americas. In a scathing report, the OAS insisted that Morales’ late-count vote shifts were enough to convict the president of fraud. The OAS made these allegations despite the fact that the same disparities in vote-counting occurred in the last Bolivian election.

This report allowed for the now-interim president, Jeanine Anez, to swiftly take over the country with little initial protest. Under misleading promises of promoting democracy in Bolivia, Anez has suspended legal accountability for members of her military and allowed the army to agitate and kill pro-Morales protesters. 

While some Bolivians celebrate the rise to power of a right-wing interim government, the much more sinister implications for the country and the rest of the continent have not been fully considered. And, of course, the United States’ interests and intervention are at the heart of it all.

As an organization, the OAS operates largely under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government and answers to U.S. authorities. Since the U.S. sets the majority of OAS policy and the headquarters are located in America, the U.S.’ influence in the organization is significant. The United States, interested in exerting more control over Bolivia, saw the perfect opportunity to unseat the current administration through exacerbating a minor election issue and took it. Once Anez took power, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised her efforts to preserve democracy in the country. Ten months later, Anez is postponing elections and using the army to enforce her laws. Quite frankly, Bolivia has begun to regress in terms of a democracy.

The U.S.’ involvement in the region cannot be understated. And, just like in the Middle East, the United States seeks to control countries to get their natural resources. 

Bolivia is home to the largest deposit of lithium in the world, which is used for medical and mental treatments. Most pressingly, however, lithium is critical to the production of batteries. With an increasingly electrified world and attempts to move away from nonrenewables, batteries and other low-waste energy sources are the key to the future. Compared to China, which is dominating the lithium battery market, the United States is behind in production and development of this crucial technology. As a result, Bolivia decided to enter into lithium trade agreements with China and Russia, which have an existing involvement in those markets. These trade deals have threatened the United States and set up the perfect storm for meddling in Bolivia under the guise of the OAS

For South America, the next several months are crucial for the future of their governments. If the United States does not denounce the despotic actions of Anez’s administration, the precedent of dishonest coups may be set for the rest of the continent. Leaders of Venezuela and Brazil, which struggle with maintaining proper democracies, will undoubtedly be looking to the U.S.’ response to Bolivia in deciding their next political move.

Despite never gaining more than ten percent of the vote, Anez’s government has already begun to cozy up to authoritarian leaders like Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. With relations between Bolivia and similar countries continuing to form, the United States may have no choice but to support the right-wing governments once they teeter on totalitarianism. As long as the coup nominally promotes democracy, which in this case entails suppressing the clear majority of socialist leaders, the United States essentially has to back it. By supporting Bolivia, the U.S. inadvertently supports the precedent of future military dictatorships in South America.

While the U.S. intervening in other countries for personal gain is not a new story, the unique case of Bolivia creates a dangerous situation.Unless the U.S. develops a strong, unapologetic denouncement of Anez’s tyrannical policies, all South American democracies may soon be at risk. If all parties involved are not careful, South America may develop into a conflict-zone like the Middle East. And, while the United States is looking for someone to blame, we can all acknowledge the proclivity for natural resources that has permeated all American foreign policy.