Bolivia – hybrid war and neo-coupism

Image: Kazimir Malevich
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By ISAÍAS ALBERTIN DE MORAES*

The increase in public investments in infrastructure, income transfer policies, all of this strengthened the internal market: an Aymará middle class emerged for the first time in Bolivia

On June 26, 2024, Bolivia was the scene of an attempted military coup. General Juan José Zúñiga, Commander of the Bolivian Army until June 25, 2024, mobilized troops, tanks and armored vehicles, marching through the streets of La Paz. The group quickly surrounded Plaza Murillo and invaded the Quemado Palace, headquarters of the Bolivian government . Luckily, the President of Bolivia, Luis Arce, was not there, but at Casa Grande del Pueblo, a neighboring palace.

While the coup units were acting, Luis Arce and his ministers met and denounced the coup attempt on social media. There was popular mobilization in support of democracy and the government of the Movement to Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of Peoples (MAS-IPSP), Arce's party. The scammers tried to invade the Casa Grande del Pueblo, but were confronted by President Arce himself, who ordered General Juan José Zúñiga to retreat.

Hours later, Juan José Zúñiga was arrested by the police on charges of terrorism and armed uprising against the security and sovereignty of the State. This was not the first time that Juan José Zúñiga faced justice; in 2013, he was accused of embezzling and stealing 2,7 million Bolivian pesos intended for social programs, resulting in seven days in prison.

The rhetoric to explain the attempted coup in Bolivia is confusing and conflicting. Some experts claim that it was an isolated act by Juan José Zúñiga, without support from Bolivian or international social, political or economic forces. They argue that Juan José Zúñiga acted in response to his removal from command of the army by Arce, interpreting it as a gesture of contempt. The removal of Juan José Zúñiga from office was due to his strong statements regarding the possibility of former President Evo Morales of running again in the presidential elections scheduled for 2025. He was categorical in stating that Evo Morales “can no longer be president of this country”, “who would arrest him” and who would be willing to offer his life “for the defense and unity of the country”.

There are politicians, such as former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga, declaring that it was an “operetta” and former President Carlos Mesa, stating that the military coup “seems like a farce”. In their view, what happened was a self-coup by Luis Arce to increase his popularity, which is at a low point. Others correlate the attempted coup with US imperialism, which has always intervened and financed coups d'état to ensure its economic, military and political interests in the region.

Initially, Juan José Zúñiga stated that his action was to free “political prisoners” – such as the 2019 coup leader, the self-proclaimed former President Jeanine Áñez, and the former governor of Santa Cruz, also the 2019 coup leader, Luis Camacho – to “restore democracy” and to fight against an “elite that took over the country, vandals”. Later, Juan José Zúñiga declared that he acted at the behest of Luis Arce himself in a “self-coup” movement. He changed his speech.

What is known in fact, so far, is that Juan José Zúñiga did not act alone, there was support from the former commander of the Bolivian Navy Juan Arnez Salvador and the former head of the Army's mechanized brigade, Alexandro Irahola. According to the investigation, they had been planning the action since May, including training on how to fly tanks in urban areas. In fact, they managed to mobilize twelve tanks, armored vehicles and hooded soldiers. Around ten military personnel have already been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the coup attempt, including its leaders.

Since 2019, Bolivia has suffered more intensely from hybrid war and neo-coupism financed by the United States and part of its corporations. In fact, all of Latin America has been suffering from these tactics. Generally speaking, hybrid warfare is the use of smart power (intelligent power, which employs hard power e soft power) to manipulate the information space, critical infrastructure with massive use of disinformation, lies, financing for decentralized political movements and radicalized groups on both the right and left, mobilizations of armed militias, cyber militias, acting in the field of militarism , jingoism, religious fundamentalism, the anarchist movement and identity agendas to destabilize the economy, politics and society of the target state.

All this acting in the media, social networks, blogs, websites, universities, parties, social and religious movements, unions, etc. Hybrid warfare is the predominant intervention model, so far, in the 21st century.

It is from hybrid warfare that neo-coupism emerges. With the economic, political and social destabilization of the target State, there is a feeling of insecurity that leads to a combination of strategies by economic, political and social groups to use institutions, including the armed forces if necessary, with the mobilization of sectors of the civil society, who are uninformed and confused by the weapons propagated by the new mass media, to overthrow the democratically elected government. Neo-coupism uses the smart power to generate a coup d'état that appears to be legal and representative of the target state's own internal struggles and not something coming from outside interests.

In 2019, a far-right mobilization forced the resignation of then President Evo Morales, who traveled to Mexico and took refuge in Argentina for almost a year, with the approval of then President Alberto Fernández (2019-2023). The electoral process and its results were questioned by the opposition, generating a wave of misinformation, conflicts and insecurity. There was popular mobilization from both the right, which was defeated in the election, and the left, which won. Fundamentalist religious groups also entered the conflict, accusing left-wing supporters, especially indigenous peoples, of practicing “witchcraft”, intensifying the conflict.

The actions of the extreme right at the time left 35 people dead in the country and there were numerous forms of violence. One of the most striking images was that of Patrícia Arce, mayor of the city of Vinto and supporter of MAS-IPSP. She was kidnapped and then beaten for four hours by far-right militias. After that, they took her to the streets, being forced to walk tied up for three kilometers, they cut her hair, red paint was thrown all over her body and she received constant threats of stoning her if she did not renounce her mandate in front of the cameras.

The footage was shown on television and social media. Another image that marked the 2019 coup was that of Luis Camacho, praying on his knees in the middle of the presidential room with two police officers, one on each side, and an open Bible on top of the Bolivian flag while fragments of a statue of Pachamama (maximum deity of the original Bolivian peoples), which had probably been destroyed at that time, were scattered across the ground.

After the coup, the former right-wing senator, Jeanine Añez, proclaimed herself President of the Republic in a legislative session without a quorum. At the time, the government of Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, and Donald Trump, President of the USA, recognized Jeanine Añez as President of Bolivia. Most other countries in the Americas did not recognize it. The coup government remained in power from November 12, 2019 until November 08, 2020. The coup government called new elections, as it did not have popular support, especially in the Andean region. In November 2020, Luis Arce, former Minister of Economy and Finance under Evo Morales, won the elections by winning 52% of the votes against 31% for his main opponent, former President Carlos Mesa.

By winning the elections, with the support of Evo Morales, Luis Arce maintained the economic model that made Bolivia quadruple its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and reduce extreme poverty from 38,2% to 15,2% between 2006 and 2019. The model generally consists of the nationalization of hydrocarbons – oil and gas – applying an additional tax of 32% on the exploration of hydrocarbons in Bolivia, enabling the nation's general treasury to have a broader level of resources for investment.

Increased public investments in physical and social infrastructure. Income transfer policies such as Bono Juancito Pinto, focusing on students, the Rent Dignidad, aimed at the elderly, and the Bono Juana Azurduy, paid to pregnant women or women with young children. This resulted in the internal market being strengthened, helping to boost and dynamize the country's economy. There was, therefore, an advance in the private sector, in a “plural economy”, with the participation of both traditional sectors and those previously marginalized, such as small and medium-sized companies and groups of indigenous peoples. A middle class emerged aymara for the first time in Bolivia.

Furthermore, Bolivia claims to hold 70% of the world's lithium reserves, mainly in the Salar de Uyuni. It is true that the country is home to at least 25% of the world's reserves. The deposits are easily accessible and reasonably shallow. The mineral, which is known as “new oil or “white gold”, is used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, in smartphones, electric vehicles, portable devices, etc. Its demand has increased dramatically in recent years. The price per ton of carbonate, which was US$5 in 2010, reached US$92 in 2022 and is currently US$40.

This meant that Luis Arce's government maintained national sovereignty in lithium production with the full participation of the state-owned company Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) at all stages of production. The nationalization of the production of mineral resources in 2008 and, in 2017, the creation of the YLB allowed investments and exports in the area to be focused on the country's public structure.

It is on this last point, lithium, that the issue of hybrid warfare and neo-coupism in Bolivia comes to the fore. During the 2019 coup, Elon Musk, in July 2020, in a post on his social network X (formerly Twitter), when responding to a user who stated that the owner of Tesla (one of the largest automotive and energy storage companies in the world) USA) supported the coup in Bolivia, wrote: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it". After the coup, Tesla shares rose absurdly, going from US$14,00 in November 2019 to US$122,00 in August 2020, a price that, to date, it has never reached again.

In March 2023, during a conference of the US House of Representatives, the head of the US Southern Command, Laura Richardson, said that the lithium triangle, formed by Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, is treated as a matter of “national security over the our back yard.” This speech, together with that of Elon Musk, makes it clear that the USA is monitoring and acting in the area with its smart power, something that must have increased as Bolivia is getting closer and closer to China and Russia.

The MAS-IPSP economic development model does not aim for Bolivia to only be an exporter of lithium. The project focuses on using lithium to promote sectors of the manufacturing industry that benefit from increasing returns to scale, generating increases in the quantity produced in a greater proportion than the growth in inputs used. This makes it possible to move resources, especially workers, from archaic, low-productivity sectors to advanced, high-productivity sectors. This maintains a higher salary level, boosting, diversifying and dynamizing the internal market.

With this in mind, President Luis Arce sought international partnerships that promote his industrialization plan for the lithium production chain. In 2023, the Bolivian government signed an agreement with the Chinese consortium CBC – made up of the Chinese companies Contemporary Amperex Technology Limited (CATL), Brunp Recycling and China Molybdenum Company. The agreement provides for the installation of two lithium carbonate production plants, in a joint-venture with the Bolivian state-owned company YLB, in the Coipasa and Uyuni region.

In the same year, YLB closed two more agreements, joint venture, one with the Chinese Citic Guoan Group – which is studying the possibility of investing in the production of lithium batteries and electric vehicles in Bolivia – and another with the Russian company Uranium One Group, which is part of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom), for two more lithium carbonate production plants.

Bolivia has already developed an electric minicar model, with space for up to three people and a maximum speed of 56 km/h. The car is produced by startup Bolivian Quantum Motors, which was founded in 2019, and has already sold 370 units. For now, only 40% of the components are national, the intention is to integrate more Bolivian suppliers into the project. Production was halted for a while due to the 2019 coup d'état and the Covid-19 pandemic, but new international contracts could make the startup thrive.

Another measure by President Luis Arce was to allow Bolivian importers and exporters to trade in Chinese currency, yuan, since February and in Russian ruble since March 2023. Transactions are intermediated by Bolivia's state bank, Banco Unión. The objective is to reduce dependence on the US dollar for foreign trade.

In relation to this point, it is important to remember that, in April this year, former US President Donald Trump, current candidate to return to the White House, stated that his economic team is evaluating ways, penalties and sanctions to actively prevent countries from use currencies other than the dollar in their global transactions. Something that Bolivia is doing and that can serve as models for other Latin American economies. Another point for the US to keep its instruments of smart power in the region.

So yes! It is possible to believe that the US has once again plotted against a democratically elected government for its economic benefit. They are acting to destabilize, misinform and fragment Bolivian society, generating ethical, religious and regional conflicts, in addition to reorganizing intra-class forces or extra-class coalitions. They explore the territorial conflicts between Meia-Lua vs Altiplano, ethnic groups among original peoples vs criollos and mestizos, Christians (Catholics and Evangelicals) vs devotees of the Andean sacred-spiritual, those of social class between the traditional middle class vs new middle class of indigenous peoples, especially Aymará, political disputes between parties and intra-party currents, etc.

President Arce's own party, MAS-IPSP, is a victim of this. Today, the party is divided between its supporters and those of former President Evo Morales, reflecting a complex scenario of internal disputes exacerbated by external interference. Latin America, especially its governments that seek economic autonomy and independent development like the Bolivian one, cannot fail to understand the dynamics of hybrid war and neo-coupism in the region. You can't get involved and fall into their game.

*Isaías Albertin de Moraes, economist, has a PhD in Social Sciences and visiting professor at the Center for Engineering, Modeling and Applied Social Sciences (CECS) at UFABC.

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