The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue
Field Notes

“Coup? What Coup?”

Lessons in Denial from Bolivia, Mexico, and the White House

Exactly 30 years ago, six Jesuit priests were murdered by right-wing death squads in El Salvador. The soldiers were not rogue agents: they had been trained in the School of the Americas, a facility at Fort Benning in the State of Georgia. These professional killers brutalized the population of El Salvador for years, torturing peasants, raping foreign nuns, spreading terror in any community suspected of having progressive tendencies.

This was but one of many examples of US-sponsored terrorism in Latin America. 30 years later, the reactionary forces of the world are still at it. Bolivia’s democratically elected president, Evo Morales, was forced to resign a few weeks ago in a violent military coup.

Killing with a Bible in their hands

For centuries, Bolivia was the poorest nation in South America. The majority indigenous population suffered unceasing exploitation at the hands of the country’s political and economic elites. Then in 2006, the country elected Evo Morales, its first indigenous president. During his 13 years in power, Morales cut Bolivia’s poverty rate in half, all while maintaining consistent 5% economic growth. He expanded the social safety net for the poor, indigenous majority, bringing stability to millions. This provoked opposition from the most powerful sectors of Bolivian society and the international community. Morales had to be stopped.

Following the first round of voting on October 20, Morales was declared the winner. (According to Bolivian law, candidates must receive an absolute majority, or win by a margin of 10% against the runner up. Otherwise, a second round of voting is required.) The opposition challenged his victory.

President Morales invited the Organization of American States (OAS) to review the results. After the US-dominated entity made allegations of fraud, Morales acquiesced and called for new elections. The OAS refused, despite reports to the contrary from independent observers. The US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research affirmed that no fraud took place in the elections, and questioned the OAS for their unfounded claims.

Tensions rose in Bolivia. Eventually, the head of the armed forces, General Williams Kaliman Romero, and the head of the national police, General Vladimir Yuri Calderón, demanded that Morales resign. In order to avoid a bloodbath, he agreed, resigning on November 10. Two days later, he was flown to Mexico on an emergency flight and offered political asylum, along with several members of his cabinet.

Back in Bolivia, the conservative senator Jeanine Áñez was declared interim president of Bolivia, in a legislative session without quorum. Carlos Mesa, the right-wing presidential candidate who lost to Morales, recognized her government immediately in a tweet: “I congratulate the new Constitutional President of Bolivia, Jeanine Áñez. Our country supports her swearing in, her democratic vocation and the bravery of this legitimate, peaceful, and heroic popular gesture. I wish you all the best success in the challenges you are facing. Long live the Homeland!”

Áñez was sworn in holding a massive Bible. With zero irony, she claimed, “God has allowed the Bible to come back into the National Palace.” (She conveniently ignored what the Bible says about the rich, the poor, and state violence.)

Áñez has long been an outspoken opponent of the Morales administration, making openly racist statements against the indigenous president and his traditions. Back in 2013, she tweeted: “I don’t want to hear about your Aymara [indigenous] new year!! You bunch of Devil-worshipers, nobody is going to come and replace God!!”

In the days following the coup, indigenous Bolivians have been in the crosshairs of the de facto government. As of this publication date, at least 23 people have died and hundreds more injured. The Aymara leader Gonzalo Quenallata recently stated that the Bible is “a mere decoration” in the hands of those who seized power. “They are killing us, shooting us and massacring us in the name of God” (“En nombre de Dios nos balean y masacran en Bolivia,” La Jornada, November 19, 2019).

All the while, many in the US insist that there was no coup.

In a statement on the White House website, President Trump announced: “The United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia's constitution. ...We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere” (Statement from President Donald J. Trump Regarding the Resignation of Bolivian President Evo Morales, issued November 11, 2019).

The US ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo, stated before the Permanent Council: “The United States congratulates the people of Bolivia for their valiant struggle against the government that attempted to steal the elections, as well as the moderation shown by the police in supporting the constitutional process. In fact, President Morales resigned. It is surprising that there are governments here that support the previous authorities that organized the fraud.”

The Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, repeated this line, insisting: “Evo Morales was the one who committed a coup d’etat” in Bolivia. “The blood is on the hands of those who committed electoral fraud; the OAS did not bring about a coup d’etat, a coup d’etat was brought about by those who stole the election, declaring victory during the first round” (“México condena quebranto de la Constitución; renunció, alega EU,” La Jornada, Wednesday, November 13, 2019, translation mine).

In other words—when the military and the police take over a country and name an interim president, this is “democracy.” Plain and simple—there was no coup.

Was he a dictator?

I am not writing this article to defend Evo Morales or his policies, but rather to oppose state-sponsored terrorism. You don’t have to support a leader in order to oppose his violent overthrow.

Three central questions must be addressed regarding Bolivia:

1. Was President Morales a dictator whose illegitimate government needed to be ousted by a violent coup?

2. Did a violent coup happen in Bolivia?

3. If so, why?

Let’s start with the easiest one: no, Morales was not a dictator. He has been elected and re-elected through the democratic process. When the OAS challenged the recent electoral results, he attempted to comply with the organization, to the point of calling for new elections.

True, he was in power for nearly fourteen years. In 2016, his government held a popular referendum to change the constitution and allow for repeated reelections. Although the referendum lost by a narrow margin of voters, the courts upheld it.

On a personal level, I’m no fan of the constant reelection of one leader. Even if that person doesn’t become a dictator, it demonstrates a lack of confidence in the larger movement. What is the point of keeping the same person in power? Is nobody else capable of catching his vision and running things? Even the PRI party that ruled Mexico nearly unopposed for 71 years had the good sense to avoid the appearances of a dictatorship. They simply rotated their leadership every six years, maintaining hegemony while never running the same candidate twice.

Still, for better or for worse, Morales was elected and re-elected through the legal process. He was overthrown by the armed forces and the national police. If he had been a dictator, he would have been an extremely ineffective one—one who failed to reign in the military, to expropriate the wealth of the rich and rule with an iron fist. In the end, he left voluntarily. Doesn’t sound very dictatorial at all.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005, with no outcry of “dictatorship” from the international press. Merkel is white, European, and pro-capitalist, while Morales is none of these things. On November 14, Morales himself explained why he had faced so much opposition:

My crime is being the first indigenous president of Bolivia. My crime is having implemented programs for the poorest people, achieving such an impressive reduction of extreme poverty. In economic matters, we nationalized industries. In political matters, what did we do? We redistributed wealth, we created programs for the poorest of us” (“Mi delito es ser indígena y redistribuir la riqueza: Evo Morales,” Televisa, November 13, 2019, translation mine).

This is at the heart of the international efforts to remove Morales from power. They have nothing to do with democracy, and everything to do with his progressive politics.

A brief history of Latin American coups

There is a long-standing tradition in Latin America of the caudillo—the strong-man politician. Some caudillos are more benevolent than others, and sure, President Morales’s repeated reelections followed in this tradition.

Without defending his reelection, though, one point must be understood: the US government has never opposed authoritarian governments in Latin America. Quite the contrary. While Washington will complain about certain caudillos, they are very selective about which ones they oppose. The complaints of “anti-democratic tendencies” only come about when a progressive leader threatens US business interests and shows too much concern for their country’s poor.

Meanwhile, the particular dictators and caudillos that Washington openly supports are often those with the most blood on their hands, those willing to protect international capital at any cost. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina ruled the Dominican Republic for 31 years, thanks to his backers in Washington. He showed his admiration of Hitler and Mussolini by applying their racist philosophy to Black Dominicans, and by implementing their scorched earth techniques to his people. Haiti’s Francois Duvalier received constant US support, financing a secret police force that was so fearsome, people named them Ton Ton Macoutes, after the bogeymen of Haitian legend. The US trained the death squads in El Salvador that murdered Catholic priests, raped nuns, assassinated Oscar Romero, and ravaged the countryside. Dictators across the continent have sent their soldiers to the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning, Georgia, to learn how to torture, assassinate, and brutalize their population. These are the defenders of US interests. Democracy has nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, the past century contains plenty of examples of leftist leaders who, like Morales, were democratically elected by their people, then overthrown by the US When Guatemalans elected Jacobo Arbenz in 1944, he had the gall to tax the United Fruit Company and to give farmland to the farmers who worked it. The US replaced him with a military dictatorship.

Chile elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1970. The country’s elites immediately set about sabotaging the economy, with the support of the CIA and the US Department of State. In declassified documents, President Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” in Chile. This all culminated in the worst terrorist attack to occur on September 11—the bloody coup that overthrew Allende in 1973.

The message is clear: if you dare to challenge US hegemony and business interests in Latin America, you will be crushed. To reappropriate a quote from George W. Bush, any progressive in Latin America could honestly say, “They hate our freedoms.”

This leaves leaders faced with tough choices. Do you try to play nice, and risk appearing ineffective? This was the path Obama chose. He was the king of compromise, but it was never enough for the Republican opposition. Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva played it safe as well, catering to neoliberal economic interests, and they still attacked him, locking him in prison for the past year. On this continent, the threat of a good example cannot be permitted. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez learned this lesson well. Shortly after he was elected in 1999, the US sponsored a coup to overthrow him. He survived it and came out on the other end, wiser to the gritty ways of the world. The elites would try to murder him regardless, so he may as well dig his heels in, solidify his political power, and get some work done.

The groups that supported the coup in Bolivia are the same people who are still mentally stuck in the Cold War. They will call any progressive a Communist, no matter how centrist and business-friendly their politics are. They called Lula da Silva a Communist. They called Obama a Communist. Hell, some of them even call Pope Francis a Communist.

Support from abroad: an exercise in denial

The US government and the Bolivian putschists continue to describe this coup as a win for “democracy.” Disturbingly, this same claim is echoed in Mexico by political conservatives and the economic elite. Not only are they supportive of the coup, some are calling for similar violence against Mexico’s own center-left President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Immediately after Morales resigned, one Mexican acquaintance posted an article on Facebook accusing him of being a dictator. When someone commented, “Do you support the coup d’etat in Bolivia?” he replied, “No, I do not support any coups d’etat. But this was not a coup.” The claim has been repeated ad nauseam by Mexico’s privileged voices. They call for Morales to be deported back to South America. They complain that their taxes were used to fly him to Mexico from Bolivia. They accuse President López Obrador of being “another leftist dictator” who is protecting his Communist friend.

I personally know many of these people. They grew up with a silver spoon in their mouth, waited on by maids, attending private schools and vacationing abroad. And yet they claim that they are the ones who are oppressed. Any day now, López Obrador will come to confiscate their land and their bank accounts, they swear. The mainstays of reactionary thought are all present here: hypocrisy, mental gymnastics, and inconsistent logic. At the heart of it all, though, is the principle of denial. Don’t call a coup a coup.

The same people who praise the Bolivian coup have made some chilling comments about Mexico’s own president. A common theme is, “If Bolivia can do it, why can’t we?” In so many words, they are calling for the violent overthrow of their own president.

These comments are frightening when one thinks about Latin American history. In every right-wing coup over the past 100 years, the same conservative elites have been behind the bloodshed.

Mexico’s President is not a dictator, much less a “Communist.” His first major moves in office were to stabilize the economy and implement massive cutbacks in government spending—not exactly something associated with leftists. Still, the opposition continues to call him “the next Fidel Castro.” They suggest that a coup is in order, all the while refusing to call it by its name.

Bolivia’s coup is not the only thing these folks have denied recently. When the caravan of Central American migrants passed through Mexico a year ago, the same conservative voices expressed their outrage—and their capacity for denial. They bemoaned “those damn dirty Hondurans who bring crime and disease” and then, in the same breath, insisted, “...but I’m not a prejudiced person.”

There is a strong parallel here to how racism is discussed in the United States. While this is certainly not the only country where racism exists, it is a particularly American custom to deny the reality of it. People in the US are famous for prefacing their racist statements with the mantra, “Now I’m not a racist or anything, but…” Even segregationists and white supremacists deny that they are racist. When Keith Bardwell, a Louisiana Justice of the Peace, refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple in October 2009, he qualified the decision: “I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way.” Two months earlier, Boston police officer Justin Barrett insisted that he was “not a racist,” after having referred to an African-American Harvard professor as a “banana-eating jungle monkey.” Apparently, the bar for being an actual “racist” is set fairly high.

As early as 1967, the insistence that “I’m not against other races” was used by none other than the head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell. When Alex Haley interviewed the Nazi leader for Playboy magazine, Rockwell listed the political leaders he supported. Haley asked the American Nazi if he would describe any of the politicians as “anti-Negro,” to which Rockwell replied, “Well, I’d prefer to call them pro-white.”

The reality of racial inequality is denied as well. Many conservatives in the US insist that absolute equality exists, telling those who disagree that “it’s all in your head.” This is a long-standing tradition. In his book White Like Me, author Tim Wise quotes a survey from the 1940s, in which most white Americans insisted that Black Americans had equal opportunities. Even during the era of Jim Crow laws, people stared reality in the face and denied it outright.

The mental gymnastics have reached their crescendo with the current US administration. Trump insisted that there was nothing racist or xenophobic about his campaign, even as he built it on the demonization of Mexico. While his government has torn migrant children from their parents and locked them in cages, he insists that he is a friend of migrants, tweeting how much he “loves Hispanics.”

Racism is not racism. Xenophobia is not xenophobia. Coups do not exist. End of story.

Why the lie?

What is the purpose of this denial? Why not simply call a coup a coup? This is more than a merely semantic battle. There is great significance behind calling things what they are. Like a demon in a bad horror movie, evil is more powerful when it is not named.

In the last book of the Harry Potter series, The Deathly Hallows, the wicked wizard Voldemort finally succeeds in overthrowing the government. The book’s protagonists are confused when, rather than declaring himself Minister of Magic, Voldemort sets up a puppet government. They soon realize that this is strategically advantageous to the Dark Lord: he doesn’t want to be the face of the new government. It’s much more beneficial for him to be behind the scenes, hiding in the shadows, pulling the strings.

This is not just the stuff of fictional wizards—real human evil works this way, too. Psychologist M. Scott Peck examines the nature of human evil in his book, People of the Lie. He writes that there is an inherent dishonesty in evil, the need to hide the truth simply for the sake of hiding it. The Devil’s greatest trick, as they say, has always been convincing people that he doesn’t exist.

Metaphysics aside, it is simply more strategic to deny the reality of a coup. If the US and their economic allies marched into La Paz with guns blazing and flew the stars and stripes over the Presidential Palace, it would be too obvious, too transparent—too likely to spark mass resistance. Subtle subversion is much more effective.

There was a time when the US was upfront about their gunboat diplomacy. Gore Vidal describes, in his essay In the Lair of the Octopus, his time spent in Guatemala during the coup against President Arbenz. He watched the bombs drop over the capital city from the residence of the US ambassador, who assured his safety because he knew exactly where the bombs would drop.

Modern coups are much more sophisticated. Just ten years ago, a similar “coup lite” occurred in Honduras. The Central American nation had elected a leftist leader who challenged the economic elite, reducing the profits of foreign companies like Dole. The US did not bomb Honduras—they simply turned up the heat, increasing pressure slowly until a breaking point was reached. When the Honduran military overthrew Zelaya, the Obama administration did not admit responsibility for anything. Tepid complaints came from the US Department of State. All the while, though, the US was one of the only countries to keep their embassy open in Tegucigalpa, and recognized the new post-coup government almost immediately. This is the age of the subtle coup.

An additional, more sinister motive lies behind such denial—the principle of “gaslighting.” Simply put, it is the practice of making a sane person believe they are going crazy. Ethnic and sexual minorities in the US have been experiencing this for centuries. When they raise their voices about inequality, they are shot down. “You aren’t being treated differently,” opponents say. “You aren’t underprivileged. It’s all in your head.” This is the darkest force behind the “It’s not a coup” claim. “You aren’t being oppressed,” the Bolivian military and elites tell their indigenous people. “There isn’t a gun pointed at your head. Stop complaining. Shut your eyes and your mouth, and let us do our dirty work.”

This is why words matter. This is why honest language is important—the sooner we call evil by its name, the sooner we can figure out how to fight it.


David Schmidt

David Schmidt is an author, podcaster, multilingual translator, and homebrewer who splits his time between Mexico City and San Diego, California.


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