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Editorial: British complicity in Bolivia's coup and the need for a more sceptical left

REVELATIONS by Declassified UK put the relationship between British authorities and the coup regime that ruled Bolivia from November 2019 to October 2020 in a new light.

It is clear that the Foreign Office paid close attention to exploitation of Bolivia’s lithium reserves long before the military coup that forced out re-elected president Evo Morales and that our embassy there helped fund projects to “optimise Bolivia’s lithium exploration and production” in the immediate aftermath.

British officialdom appears to have contributed to the widely discredited Organisation of American States (OAS) report that alleged irregularities in Morales’s re-election – a document used by far-right protesters and the army to justify their takeover. 

That Britain welcomed the army-appointed president Jeanine Anez and ignored her government’s massacres of protesters against the coup are matters of record, as is Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s tweet calling Jeremy Corbyn’s condemnation of the coup “unbelievable.”

Thanks to Declassified UK, we now also know that the British embassy in Bolivia helped fund “civil society organisations” and journalism training for how to cover the 2019 election, suggesting that British authorities were preparing to dispute the results.

None of this means that Britain was the main foreign sponsor of the coup in Bolivia. That role clearly goes to the United States. 

Morales’s resistance to foreign control of Bolivian lithium – his government cancelled proposals to privatise lithium mines shortly before the election – was not just a problem for British companies, and the significance of its huge reserves of this “white gold” so key to the electric car industry was most famously alluded to by US Tesla tycoon Elon Musk with his boast: “We will coup whoever we want.”

What we do learn is that Britain’s role was more disreputable than previously realised. 

Whitehall’s support for the coup was not merely an example of London falling into line behind Washington, let alone of British diplomats being taken in by the OAS’s bogus claims of electoral fraud. 

Our men in La Paz were deeply interested in access to the country’s resources; they helped fund various propaganda schemes apparently designed to discredit the election; they moved quickly on resource-extraction projects with the coup government as it was shooting down protesters.

One lesson must be the need for far closer scrutiny of the claims we see reported about foreign countries, especially where opposition movements are enthusiastically backed by our own government.

Britain’s funding of media activity aimed at giving the impression of mass grassroots opposition to Morales is not unique. 

In Bolivia, the combination of opposition street protests with supposedly independent journalists promoting an anti-Morales narrative gave British, US and EU authorities the excuse they needed to endorse a putsch and turn a blind eye to the lethal repression it unleashed. But excellent work by Latin America solidarity organisations over the years made the fairy tale harder to swallow on the left, where the coup was widely condemned.

There is greater credulity over the claims of Western-backed opposition groups in many other parts of the world, such as Hong Kong, even though US funding for the protest movement in that city is well known and acknowledged by the US authorities.

The mere existence of foreign funding does not automatically discredit protest movements or disprove their claims of grassroots support. But it is a warning sign that hidden agendas are at work.

Bolivia’s heroic people overturned the coup within a year and restored democracy. The Movement Towards Socialism was triumphantly re-elected last autumn. 

But the murky saga of the 2019 coup leaves us in no doubt as to the depths to which our government will stoop when it fancies regime change may be in the interests of Britain’s ruling class. 

Nothing our rulers say can be trusted. And everything that a mass media dominated by them puts in front of us should be treated with scepticism.

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