23 October 2020   Leave a comment

In 2005, Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first President with almost pure indigenous roots, a rarity in Latin American politics which tended to favor candidates with European ancestry. He was an unabashed socialist and implemented many governmental reforms to favor Bolivia’s indigenous population and to reduce the severe income inequality that characterized the polity. Needless to say, his relationship with the US was strained and Morales forged close ties with other politicians in Latin America who favored the left, such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Morales tried to change the constitution in 2019 to allow himself to run for a fourth term. That attempt alienated the Bolivian military and Morales was forced to resign and go into exile in Argentina. His departure sparked a serious crisis in Bolivian politics:

“Morales left the country in November after a disputed presidential election sparked countrywide protests and led the military to withdraw their support of him. Morales’ exit from office after nearly 14 years was labeled a coup by some and to others, a consequence of a power grab. For others it was both. Though he’s not running in the do-over election, Morales’ legacy – and the controversy over his final days in office – will likely weigh heavily on voters. His recent travels from Argentina to Cuba for ‘health reasons,’ as well as his effort to run for a seat in congress from outside the country, have also kept him front and center in the run-up to May’s vote.

“The result is a divided electorate and polarizing group of candidates. And it’s more than a simple left-versus-right divide. Morales’ Movement toward Socialism (MAS) is fielding a single candidate, but divisions on the left mean its coalition is weaker than in past elections. Meanwhile, several candidates on the center and right are clashing for the mantle of the anti-MAS vote.”

But the recent election in Bolivia was a near-total vindication of the policies of Morales’s party:

“‘It hurts,’ confessed Eva Copa, the 32-year-old senate president from Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (Mas), her voice breaking and tears filling her eyes as she pondered what some thought might prove a fatal blow to their pro-indigenous project. ‘What has happened will leave scars.’

“Visibly exhausted, Copa admitted the outlook was uncertain, for her movement and Bolivia as a whole. ‘The last thing the Bolivian people want is more chaos,’ she said.

“But the young senator was adamant Mas could, and would rebuild. ‘We don’t need to refound ourselves. What we’re going to do is reorganise,’ Copa said. ‘We have faith we’ll pull through this.’

“That faith was well-placed. On Friday morning authorities confirmed a stunning political comeback with Mas’s candidate, the former finance minister Luis Arce, winning Sunday’s presidential election by a thumping 26.3% margin.

“His closest rival in the re-run of last October’s voided ballot, the centrist ex-president Carlos Mesa, received 28.8% of the 6.48m votes compared to Arce’s 55.1%There was a record voter turnout of 88.4%.

When Morales was President, one of his most important initiatives was to control the exploitation of Bolivia’s considerable lithium reserves, an element that has become incredibly important in the production of batteries for electric automobiles. That policy triggered widespread speculation that outside powers engineered a coup against Morales in order to protect their access to Lithium:

“Bolivia’s tumultuous past year also features a powdery white subplot with worldwide implications. Not long after being forced out of the country, Morales and many of his supporters argued that he was ousted in part as a response to his attempts to nationalize the country’s lithium—a mineral used in batteries that power various clean energy technologies, including electric cars. “My crime, my sin, is to be an Indian,” he told American journalist Glenn Greenwald in an interview, “and to have nationalized our natural resources, removed the transnational corporations from the hydrocarbon sector and mining.” Morales had hoped that state-owned Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano, or YLB, would be able not just to mine lithium but refine it into lithium hydroxide and other compounds used in battery manufacturing. Tesla executive Elon Musk—whose renewables empire sources lithium mostly from Australia, not Bolivia—added to theories about a potential lithium coup this summer by tweeting, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

So far, there is little direct evidence supporting the charge that Morales was forced into exile because outside powers directed a coup. The charge is not far-fetched, but Lithium is not an especially scarce element.

Morales will likely return to Bolivia, but MAS seems determined to govern without his return to power. We should keep a close eye on how Bolivia decides to extract its reserves of Lithium. One would expect that Bolivia will seek to have the help of either Russia or China to extract the element and Western companies may be shut out of the process.

Posted October 23, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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