The (Definitely not CIA-Backed) Bolivian Coup Is Probably Bad News for Our Climate Emergency

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The (Definitely not CIA-Backed) Bolivian Coup Is Probably Bad News for Our Climate Emergency

Over the weekend, a coup took place in Bolivia, as the democratically-elected leftist administration of Evo Morales—the first indigenous president in a majority-indigenous country—was forced to resign by the army. Many call Morales a dictator because he has been in (supposedly undemocratic) power since 2006 (the same amount of time as Germany’s Angela Merkel), but he has won free and fair elections before, and this thread summarizes how he almost surely won one again this month.

His efficacy as a leader is not absolute, and Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. This is not all Morales’s fault, as the history of countries under the thumb of the IMF and World Bank leads a lot of them to look like Bolivia, while their investors make bank (if you’re looking for a firm definition of neoliberalism, those institutions are it). The situation in Bolivia is wildly complicated, and while Evo Morales is not the saint many on the left are making him out to be, to call him a dictator is to ignore multiple elections where the will of the Bolivian people was clearly expressed. Plus, he has created some serious leftist reforms while protecting his country from capitalist predators. The Bolivian government of 2006 to 2019 created policy models for leftists the world over.

You won’t see the word “coup” appear in many stories out of mainstream media or statements from politicians today, because those institutions lack the courage of folks like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar and Senator Bernie Sanders, who have all been willing to call a spade a spade even when it is unpopular to do so in our nation’s capital. That the Bolivian army forced the Morales government to resign is the widely-reported story, which is the literal definition of a coup d’état, and yet, here we are, tiptoeing around the obvious for some reason (more on one possible reason in a bit).

Which brings us to the most powerfully destructive force ever created by those in power: climate change. You may think that what is happening in Bolivia is some domestic dispute that does not directly affect you, but think again. What will happen with Salar de Uyuni will go a long way towards determining how we deal with our climate emergency.

Photo by Anthony Asael/Art in All of Us/Getty

This is the world’s largest salt flat. The crust sitting atop this natural beauty is rich in lithium, the key material used in rechargeable batteries. Salar de Uyuni is 13.5 times the size of New York City, and it is home to anywhere between 50% and 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. Whatever is going to happen with electric vehicles this century is going to be powered in large part by Bolivia—the country whose democratically-elected leftist president just was removed in a coup. That sound you just heard was the hair standing up on the back of every historian’s neck in your general vicinity. Put your tinfoil hats on, and join me as I digress into a theory, beginning with this Reuters report from 2017:

[Bolivia] is eager to cash in on tightening supplies of lithium. Experts say spot prices have more than doubled to around $25,000 per ton from below $10,000 in 2015.

Rain and other natural challenges, along with execution hiccups, have hampered state-run operations. Foreign companies with more expertise may be spooked by the left-leaning government of President Evo Morales, whose interventionist policies in other sectors have riled some big corporations and made others hesitant to invest, analysts said.

In the run-up to this year’s election, President Evo Morales tried to attract foreign investment into Bolivia’s lithium reserves, but was snubbed at nearly every turn—likely because his economic vision was centered around empowering the Bolivian people and protecting their environment, and not maximizing his investor’s returns. Lithium as global demand is expected to double by 2025, so investors entering this space are expecting massive profits. There is a vast ideological gulf between the (ex) proprietor of Bolivia’s lithium reserves and those with the finances and infrastructure that will allow Bolivia to finally tap into their 21st century gold rush. We know a bit about what Evo Morales wanted out of a deal with investors, because a subsidiary of the ACI Group in Germany agreed to a $250 million contract with Bolivia last year to build a lithium mining operation. These two excerpts from a 2018 Bloomberg report on the business of lithium sum up the current state of the market. It begins with tales of troubles for the oligopoly controlling most of the industry.

Top producers FMC Corp. and Albemarle Corp. in the U.S., SQM in Chile and Tianqi Lithium Corp. in China are investing billions to expand their existing operations. Even the most experienced are suffering setbacks, with SQM reporting delays and unexpected difficulties in expanding in Chile.

And it ends with a familiar quote:

“Bolivia is quite frankly very risky relative to other parts of the world for lithium investment,” said Chris Berry, an analyst and founder of research firm House Mountain Partners LLC. “Investors are concerned with both return on capital and return of capital.”

If you’re wondering what Bolivia was searching for in their dealings with major capital, ACI Group’s spokesperson provided a pretty good idea of where they’re coming from to Americas Quarterly (emphasis mine):

As of publication, Bolivia’s energy ministry had not replied to requests for an interview on the partnership, but a spokesperson for ACI Systems told AQ in a statement that “Bolivia’s intention was not to find a partner in the biggest markets, rather one that provides support along the complete value creation chain.”

For the past decade, as the climate catastrophe has worsened, investors have scrambled to find new investments in green tech and have invested billions. Lithium is powering the batteries of the future, and the world’s existing lithium companies (mainly in Australia, Chile and China) have been doing incredibly well—so well, in fact, that lately they have had trouble keeping up with demand. According to the laws of supply and demand, this should make Evo Morales’s immense supply of lithium all the more attractive for investors. Yet, all the reporting around private capital’s negotiations with Bolivia’s leftist government the past couple of years paints a picture of an investor class unwilling to agree to deposed President Evo Morales’s terms to socialize the gains among his people whose land is providing the profit, and now the president is gone, yet the investor class and lithium remain.

We don’t know if the CIA is behind yet another coup in a region that our Monroe Doctrine states we have complete dominion over, but the Trump administration has not hid its desire to oust Morales, and the CIA has admitted to previously overthrowing democratically-elected governments while installing right-wing leaders who make sure to protect The Right Interests, and…well…that and the massive investment opportunity for major capital are the elephants in the room.

To assert that the CIA yet again aided the overthrow of a Central or South American government standing in the way of major private investment profiting off the country’s immensely lucrative resources is a claim (presently) without merit, but the pattern it fits does square neatly into the peg the CIA has spent a century carving out. Hell, the CIA didn’t even invent this endless cycle, as left-wing governments being overthrown so right-wing authoritarians can sell every last natural resource to the highest foreign bidder is essentially the tl;dr of colonialism. For all I know, I may be floating nothing more than a baseless conspiracy here, but the basis of it rooted in recorded history.

I’ll admit that I would be of a less conspiratorial mind if our major media and politicians were calling this by the term their description of it says it is. “Coup” is a dirty word in American politics because of our (supposed) love of democracy, but the United States government has proven they cannot be trusted to keep their hands clean in any regime change scenario—especially those in countries within the purview of the Monroe Doctrine—so these vessels of power avoiding the former cannot help but bring my attention to the latter. That those closest to power are agreeing on the general description of what happened, but disagreeing on the terminology and the virtue of the event, should set off the BS detector of anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of U.S. 20th century history.

It should also be noted that another reason for skepticism is that many of our sordid 20th century history’s regime change authors are working in our government right now. The will to overthrow a leftist government is clearly there, and the default position of the Trump administration is to exploit anything and everything within its purview (especially its political enemies). Add in the massive financial opportunity for the major capitalists constantly operating in the shadows of our government, and we have all the ingredients here for a tale as old as time.

As to actually trying to understand events in Bolivia, we don’t have enough information to come to a whole lot of firm determinations yet (other than there are far more people claiming Morales won a fraudulent election than there is evidence for their claim), and U.S. media has proven themselves unequal to the task more often than not in situations like this. This is a story about Bolivia—not America—but given the insular nature of our media discourse, mainstream media has a financial incentive to make everything about American politics. Here’s Yale professor Greg Grandin with some helpful advice for digesting the news coming out of this region going forward.

How these lithium investors tunes change on Salar de Uyuni should be instructive. The publicly-traded stocks of Panasonic, Toshiba, LG Chem and Tesla—four of the ten largest lithium battery manufacturers in the world—have all seen their prices rise from where they were a month ago. While there is never one reason for any movement of any stock price in America’s largest legalized casino, it is impossible to separate the events in Bolivia from the business of these companies. The lithium that Bolivia can supply is simply too large to ignore. No matter how it actually happened, this coup is good news for some of the richest and most powerful companies in a world where capitalism is King.

Right-wing governments are always friendly to the wealthiest in society (so as to consolidate their power), and the investors tearing their hair out over Bolivia’s demands a year ago are no doubt in a sunnier mood today. Given the history of climate change, when something is very, very good for the world’s wealthiest industrialists, that usually means that it’s bad for the rest of the world. Thanks to this coup in Bolivia, the energy of our future may now wind up being owned by the same economic and political forces who necessitated its creation in the first place, and believing that they will extract this lithium without harming the environment is a dubious notion given their histories. Per usual, the world is on fire and all the arsonists are in power.

Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.