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Burning the Wiphala Flag: How Canada and the U.S. fueled chaos in Bolivia

The ease with which the narrative of a fraudulent election was propagated, and the swift rise of right-wing forces in Bolivia, owes much to U.S. and Canadian foreign policy.
Samuel Helguero Montreal, QC

The power vacuum left by fleeing president Evo Morales was quickly filled. With members of Morales’ circle resigning under threat of violence and the reported kidnapping of their family, right-wing senator Jeanine Áñez declared herself president.

Áñez’s rise to power was preceded by racist acts of violence across Bolivia. Footage emerged of Indigenous Bolivians being attacked and forced out of towns. Militias gathered and burned the Indigenous Wiphala flag as policemen cut off this symbol from their uniforms. In at least two cities, security forces opened fire against unarmed native demonstrators. In Cochabamba, Indigenous coca growers wept and tossed flowers on the caskets of their dead. Doctors in Cochabamba assessed what occurred as a “massacre” by the police.

These were acts of terror. In a country where between 40 to 60 percent of the nation’s population is Indigenous, racism fuels the opposition. Morales has helped make himself a target. Although it is tempting to focus on his economic policies (the nationalization of hydrocarbon, for instance, helped lift one-fourth of the country’s population out of poverty), Morales’ legal reforms also brought increased autonomy to Indigenous communities. As Adriana Guzmán, a prominent activist and Aymara leader, remarked in response to the coup, “they [the opposition] have judged the [Morales] government not just because of its political mistakes. They have judged it for being Indigenous.”

Áñez symbolized the right-wing countercurrent brought into motion in Bolivia. As she declared herself president to the public, she held up and shook a large bible in her hands. This echoed Áñez’s ally, far-right Luis Fernando Camacho’s statements earlier that week as he lay a bible on the national flag in the presidential palace. It was declared that with the Indigenous president gone, “Pachamama [the Indigenous Earth Goddess] will never return. Today, Christ is returning to the Government Palace.” Áñez then moved to appoint an “Indigenous-free” cabinet. A presidential decree guaranteed impunity to the military for whatever violence they execute against protestors who might be angered at these offenses.

Of interest to Canadians and Americans is not only the racist and violent sentiment mobilized in Bolivia, but the process that brought Áñez to power. President Evo Morales was asked to step down by the military after demonstrators, militias and police forces responded to reports of election fraud. These reports largely arose from an Organization of American States’ (OAS) mission sent to monitor the elections.

The Buried Report

OAS findings were widely disseminated in South and North American media. The CBC describes the report as having found that the Bolivian “electoral tribunal inexplicably went dark for 23 hours.” When the vote count came back on, Morales had a greater lead over his opponent than before.

In way of a proper description of the election, Kevin Young, author and researcher at the University of Amherst observes: “The preliminary audit of the [OAS]… does contain allegations of widespread irregularities. On the other hand, we have the authoritative report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research [CEPR]…[which] found that there was no evidence of fraud.”

The CEPR report, authored and reviewed by a handful of researchers, notes an important nuance in Bolivian elections. There are, indeed, two counts in Bolivia. The unofficial vote count—also called a quick count—and the official vote count (or the cómputo).

Crucially, it was during the unofficial count that there was a 23-hour interruption.

In line with a trend of ending the quick vote count early, election officials suspended the count at 83.85 percent of tally sheets verified (a higher number of votes than they had promised to quick count a week before the election). The “blackout” occurred after the OAS “urged” that the count be continued. 23 hours after ending the quick vote count it was resumed after pressure from the OAS. Despite the concession to OAS demands, the OAS then attacked the resumption—with public outcry clinging to their words.

The official final results closely mirrored the results of the resumed quick count. Of course, the authors of the CEPR report note, “the legally binding official vote count did not stop for any significant period of time.” Morales’ win with 47 percent of the populations’ support, largely echoed polling prior to the election. Five out of six polls predicted Morales would win by the significant margin that he did.

The ease with which the narrative of a fraudulent election was propagated, and the swift rise of right-wing forces in Bolivia, owe much to U.S. and Canadian foreign policy.

Democracy Promotion”

On the U.S. front, attempts to oust Morales from office are nothing new. Over the past few days, actors like opposition-leader Carlos Mesa, the OAS, and high-ranking military, have all been criticized for their relationship to U.S. funding and planning. U.S. intelligence operations, like “Operation Naked King” sought to undermine Morales through campaigns of bribery and destruction. Neil Burron observes in his study of U.S.-Bolivian relations, that the U.S. spent over $100 million between 2001 and 2009 in “democracy promotion” in Bolivia. These U.S. programs continue and are aimed at “undermin[ing] the rise of Evo Morales’s Movement toward Socialism” by financing “‘hard tactics’” namely, “support for right wing departments” in the country’s West. Morales’ mobilization of neglected and abused Indigenous communities was too great a threat to “U.S. [coca] eradication policies” and “the exploitative practices of its transnational corporations.”

More recently, leaked audio recordings reveal coordination between Bolivian police, military, and opposition leaders in planning the removal of Morales. They claimed support from U.S. senators Ted Cruz, Bob Menéndez, and Marco Rubio. Crediting his unique influence in the Trump administration, Senator Rubio is recognized by the New York Times as the “virtual secretary of state for Latin America.”

True to his distinguished role, Senator Rubio tweeted before the OAS released any commentary on the election and even prior to the end of any vote count that “all credible indications are Evo Morales failed to secure necessary margin to avoid second round in Presidential election. However some concern he will tamper with the results or process to avoid this [sic].”

The senator continued to formally condemn the Bolivian election as the OAS issued its report, helping to gather and legitimize support against the results. He was followed by several communiqués from the Trump administration who later congratulated the coup against Morales. In an official public statement, Washington called “the resignation” of Morales “a significant moment for democracy.” They “applaud[ed]” the initiative of “the Bolivian military” and hoped it would send a “strong signal” to other governments in the region.

Turning the Tide

Canada’s role in the Bolivian election follows a similar trajectory. The modest political pressure we’ve applied to the situation has been cheered on and ushered by the CBC. Their leading journalist on the matter, Evan Dyer, has penned articles at every point and juncture of the conflict. Dyer’s pieces’ like “Canada not ready to condemn Bolivia’s dubious election,” play to fears of the “major human rights abuses” committed by Bolivia’s “socialist” allies. He implies throughout that it is our responsibility to “join the European Union, the United States” and several of its “most important partners in the Lima Group in refusing to recognize” the “official election results.”

Responding in turn, Global Affairs Canada issued a statement condemning the election. It cites the OAS report and its findings on an electoral process that “did not comply with international standards” and its concerns over an “unexplained 24-hour interruption.” The statement concludes that “it is not possible to accept the outcome under these circumstances.” One can hardly imagine a South American state refusing to “accept” the elections of Canada and the U.S. (both of whose leaders suffer a much lower popularity than Morales’), but that is only because of our unique role as self-appointed bastions of truth and democracy. Dyer chirps in, applauding our “cautious stance.”

Canada’s political backing for the coup continued as it moved to cautiously “support” the new opposition government even as it took on unprecedented power. We’ve perhaps been more resolute, as foreign policy analyst Yves Engler notes, in our support of right-wing presidents in other countries. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera who enjoys a 14 percent approval rating received a reassuring phone call from Trudeau earlier this month. Although he made no mention of the “ongoing turmoil in Chile” transcripts show the Prime Minister criticizing “election irregularities in Bolivia” and supporting efforts for regime-change in Venezuela.

It is exactly Canada’s support for and strengthening of right-wing forces in Latin America that created an atmosphere for power to be easily stripped away from the Morales government. Far from a coalition of successful pink tide presidents with real power to control the fate of the region, Canada has ensured that the tide turn to the right. Take Canada’s leading role in the 2009 coup in Honduras. Tyler Shipley, an expert on the matter, makes clear that despite “brutal and systematic repression” as well as “assassinations” aimed at “peaceful popular resistance”, Canada quickly approved the new right-wing president and sent its foreign minister to the nation. With amazing haste, Harper later went to sign a trade agreement, aware that the new “far-right military government would be an ideal partner” for Canada’s destructive and exploitative mining interests in the country.

More recently, Canada was a major player in sowing further instability in Venezuela. Politician Juan Guaidó enjoyed near anonymity until he declared himself president with immediate U.S. and Canadian support. Trudeau mobilized the Lima group and based his legitimization of Guaidó on misquotations of the Venezuelan constitution and misinformation surrounding the legitimacy of the election of president Nicolás Maduro. The CBC failed to debunk false statements coming from the Canadian government. It was left to a letter penned by 70 scholars and experts to point out (correctly, as we now know) that “[n]either side in Venezuela can simply vanquish the other” and greater intervention can only lead to “unnecessary human suffering, violence, and instability.” Yet, these risks to human life may have been worth it in a fight against a government that “nationaliz[ed] its gold mining sector”—an affront to powerful Canadian mining companies.

Fuel to the Fire

Canada and the U.S. have succeeded in spreading a message across Latin America: elections are optional for would-be presidents. Spreading this message is what they mean by “democracy promotion.” Áñez takes after her right-wing colleagues in the region, symbolizing an entrenched white elite with a corporate friendly platform. Meanwhile, the colourful Indigenous Wiphala flag burns.

As popular—often Indigenous—resistance forms, it will be met with repression. Although the bullets will be fired by the Bolivian military and militia, the responsibility for the bloodshed will very much be shared with the U.S. and Canada.

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Samuel Helguero
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