Elon Musk and the overthrow of democracy in Bolivia

Elon Musk's intemperate attitude to the coup in Bolivia shows the billionaire's disdain for democracy.

On July 24, Tesla’s Elon Musk wrote on Twitter that a second United States “government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people”. Someone responded to Musk soon after, “You know what wasn’t in the best interest of people? The US government organising a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you could obtain the lithium there.” Musk then wrote: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

Musk refers here to the coup against President Evo Morales Ayma, who was removed illegally from his office in November 2019.

Morales had just won an election for a term that was to have begun in January. Even if there was a challenge against that election, Morales’ term should rightfully have continued through November and December of 2019. Instead, the Bolivian military, at the behest of Bolivia’s far right and the US government, threatened Morales; Morales went into exile in Mexico and is now in Argentina.

At that time, the “evidence” of fraud was offered by the far right and by a “preliminary report” by the Organization of American States; only after Morales was removed from office was there grudging acknowledgment by the liberal media that there was in fact no evidence of fraud. It was too late for Bolivia, which has been condemned to a dangerous government that has suspended democracy in the country.

Lithium coup

Over his 14 years in office, Morales fought to use the wealth of Bolivia for the Bolivian people, who saw — after centuries of oppression — remarkable advances in their basic needs. Literacy rates rose and hunger rates dropped. The use of Bolivia’s wealth to advance the interests of the people rather than North American multinational corporations was an abomination to the US embassy in La Paz, which had egged on the worst elements of the military and the far right to overthrow the government. This is just what happened in November last year.

Musk’s admission, however intemperate, is at least honest. His company Tesla has long wanted access at a low price to the large lithium deposits in Bolivia; lithium is a key ingredient for batteries. Earlier this year, Musk and his company revealed that they wanted to build a Tesla factory in Brazil, which would be supplied by lithium from Bolivia; when we wrote about that we called our report “Elon Musk is acting like a neo-conquistador for South America’s lithium”. Everything we wrote there is condensed in his new tweet: the arrogance toward the political life of other countries, and the greed toward resources that people like Musk think are their entitlement.

Musk went on to delete his tweet. He then said, “we get our lithium from Australia”; this will not settle the issue, since eyebrows are being raised in Australia regarding the environmental damage from lithium mining.

Suspension of democracy

After Morales was removed, an insignificant far-right politician named Jeanine Áñez set aside the constitutional process and seized power. She showed the character of her politics when she signed a presidential decree on November 15 that gave the military the right to do whatever it wanted; even her allies found this to be too far and repealed it on November 28.

Arrests and intimidation of activists from the Movement for Socialism (MAS) — the party of Morales — began in November and still continue. On July 7, seven US senators published a statement that said, “We are increasingly concerned by the growing number of human rights violations and curtailments of civil liberties by the interim government of Bolivia.

“Without a change in course by the interim government,” the senators wrote, “we fear that basic civil rights in Bolivia will be further eroded and the legitimacy of the crucial upcoming elections will be put at risk.”

There’s no need to worry about that, since Áñez’s government seems unwilling to hold an election. By all polls, Áñez looks likely to be defeated in the general elections. A recent poll by El Centro Estratégico Latinoamericano de Geopolítica (CELAG) says that Áñez will get a mere 13.3%, far behind the MAS’s Luis Arce (41.9%) and the centre-right’s Carlos Mesa (26.8%). The election was supposed to have taken place in May, but it was rescheduled for September 6; it has now been postponed once again, this time to October 18. Bolivia would not have had an elected government for an entire year.

Arce recently told Peoples Dispatch’s Oliver Vargas: “We face persecution, we face surveillance … we are facing a very difficult campaign.” But, he said, “We are sure that we will win these elections.” If elections are permitted.

The CELAG study shows that 9 out of 10 Bolivians have seen their incomes decline due to the coronavirus recession. Because of this — and the attack by the government on the MAS — 65.2% of Bolivians have a negative opinion of Áñez. It is important to note that due to the positive policies of Morales’ MAS, there is widespread support for a socialist orientation; 64.1% of Bolivians support taxes against the rich, and Bolivians in general support the resource socialism of the MAS and Morales.

‘CoronaShock’

Áñez’s government has been utterly incompetent regarding the coronavirus. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in this country of 11 million people is 66,456; since testing is low, the number is likely much higher.

Musk returns to our story. On March 31, Bolivia’s Foreign Minister Karen Longaric wrote an obsequious letter to Musk asking him about the “offer of cooperation posted by you regarding ventilators ready to be dispatched to countries where they are needed the most”. Longaric said, “If it is not possible to send it to Bolivia, we can arrange its receipt in Miami, Florida and transport them from there as quickly as possible.” No such ventilators came.

Instead, the government bought ventilators from a Spanish supplier for $27,000 for each of the 170 devices; Bolivian producers had said they could supply ventilators for $1000 per unit. Áñez’s health minister, Marcelo Navajas, was arrested for this scandal.

Morales

Morales read Musk’s tweet about the coup in Bolivia and responded: “Elon Musk, the owner of the largest electric car company, says about the coup in Bolivia: ‘We will coup whoever we want’. Another proof that the coup was about Bolivian lithium; at the cost of two massacres. We will always defend our resources!”

The reference to the massacres is important. In November, from Mexico City, Morales watched as the Áñez government let loose the dogs of war against the people of Bolivia from Cochabamba to El Alto. “They are killing my brothers and sisters,” Morales said at a press conference. “This is the kind of thing the old military dictatorships used to do.” It is the toxic character of the Áñez government, backed fully by the US government and Elon Musk.

Protests across Bolivia began on July 27 for the restoration of democracy.

[Abridged from Peoples Dispatch. Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Alejandro Bejarano is a Bolivian musician and documentarian.]

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