Bolivia’s Coup was About Who Gets Control of the Country’s Rare Metal, Indium

President Evo Morales was deposed on November 10 after almost three weeks of protests. The coup d’etat was backed by the US government.

Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, had run for a third consecutive time in office. This was following a ruling in December 2017 when the country’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice overruled the 2009 two-term limit constitution. Under the new constitution, all public offices would have no term limits.

Widespread protests began after the election on 20th of October. Morales, Bolivia’s longest-serving president, was accused of rigging the election, with 47.1% of the votes. With 36.51% of votes, his opponent, Messa, had called for a second-round vote. He would be backed by the USA, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia.

The new coup-backed government, under the leadership of Jeanine Áñez, would begin arresting journalists and politicians, forcing Morales into exile.

During his election campaigns, Morales had promised to return Bolivia to ‘resource nationalism’. Resource nationalism in Bolivia, author, Kevin A. Young, says in Blood of the Earth: Resource Nationalism, Revolution, and Empire in Bolivia “it is a struggle to control the country’s natural wealth.”

Morales’ promise included the protection of the indigenous population, who have historically died when mining resources used, in major parts, by the West.

The mining community, however, saw Morales’ resource nationalism as a threat to their profit. In May 2013, Engineering and Mining Journal (EM&J) reported that Morales’ environmental protectionism as “one of the biggest threats to the global mining industry] in the 21st century”.

“But with heightened awareness of [the mining industry’s] endeavours comes an emerging threat from foreign governments: resource nationalism – the use of tactics from increasing taxes and royalties to tightening exports to outright expropriation – curtailing access to resources for economic or political gain,” the article read.

Morales v. The Mining Industry

Bolivia is home to the largest indium deposit in the world, with the capacity for producing 80 tonnes yearly. The second-largest, in Mount Pleasant, Canada, has the capacity to produce less than half, with only 38.5 tons yearly.

Malku Khota, the site of Bolivia’s indium mine, is capable of producing substantial amounts of silver, indium, lead, copper, gallium and zinc. LCD screens used worldwide, in phones, computers and televisions, are made using indium, a rare metallic element processed out of zinc concentrate.

Before Morales came into power in 2007, resource nationalism was not on the agenda. Global companies operating Bolivia’s mining industry were allowed to profit massively from the country’s resources. Worse, the miners, comprising of indigenous workers, were paid meagerly.

To fulfil his promises of resource nationalism, Morales’s government ensured that the state-owned 51% of all oil and gas firms operating in Bolivia. Profits from mining in the energy sector went back into Bolivia’s public funds. Through these policies, extreme poverty was lowered by more than 50%, and Bolivia’s indigenous-majority population began living above poverty.

Assuaging the West’s neoliberal economic policies, Morales’ policies focused on “indigenous rights”. Under his economic model, the country would no longer be financially dependent on the World Bank, the USA and international mining industries to survive.

On July 10 2012, Morales’ government nationalised the Malku Khota mines, formerly under the ownership of Canada’s South American Silver. “Nationalization is our obligation,” he said.

By November 2018, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague would settle South American Silver’s case against the Bolivian government. Originally asking for $385.7 million, South American Silver would receive $27.7 million from the Bolivian government for the Malku Khota property.

Amid growing concerns of Morales’ nationalisation, in 2007, US Ambassador to Bolivia, Phillip Goldberg, sent a message to Washington. It read:

“Sadly, without dynamite in the streets, it is uncertain whether the Embassy or the international mining companies will be able to attain even this minimal goal [of organising a meeting with Vice President, Álvaro García Linera].”

The struggle over resources in Bolivia is the same story all over postcolonial Latin America. Neoliberalism must win in the region – by soft power or hard power – since Latin America’s resources keep the US wealthy.