Lithium and vivir bien: Sovereignty and transition

Fabio S. M. Castro, Sinclair M. G. Guerra and Paulo A. Lima Filho


At the entrance of the new century, a proposal for a sovereign nation project based on the emancipation of indigenous and peasant communities emerged in Bolivia. Under the indigenous leadership of Evo Morales, through the social movements organization, it took advantage of the commodity boom and distributed income in the country, a process that came to be known as ‘Bolivian Wonder’. It was a process that started in 2006 and that lasted for almost 14 years. Although interrupted for one year by a military coup, the path to vivir bien (living well), even if plunged into deep contradictions, is expected to resume after the democratic elections at the end of 2020.

This historical process, which is known in the country asproceso de cambio (process of change), even after the crisis in 2009 and the sharp drop in commodity prices in 2014, which led other South American countries into deep crises, permitted a continued growth at around 5% per year. However, this did not prevent a reaction of the traditional elites against this popular project. Riding the wave of the strengthening of the extreme right in the region, at the end of 2019, against the result of the elections that would lead to a fourth term of the Movement toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo - MAS), the Bolivian middle class took to the streets expressing their discontent and, supported by the military, they pressured Evo Morales to resign.

We interpret what happened as a coup d’état, as do Lambert (2019) and Engdahl (2019). At the international level, discussions about whether it was a coup or not were intense. The hegemonic media attested to the legitimacy of the facts in view of their origin in the manifestations of the middle class; nonetheless, they failed to consider the external influence that was established and the definitive participation of the military who were co-opted to reinforce the coup.

On the other side, in alternative media outlets, a narrative that indicated the link between the coup and the interests of North American companies in the Bolivian lithium was consolidated. This narrative got even stronger when Elon Musk - CEO of Tesla, one of the largest producers of electric cars in the world - published on his Twitter account, in response to a provocation regarding North American interventionism in Bolivia: ‘We will coup whoever we want. Deal with it’.1 To many, this confirmed that the Bolivian coup was motivated by an interest to gain access to the country’s large reserves of lithium, a mineral used for the manufacturing of electric batteries. Evidently, Musk made a very serious statement. But to really apprehend the role of lithium it is necessary to understand that Bolivia sought to insert itself sovereignly in the world lithium market, breaking with its traditional position in the international division of labor.

This historical construction of capitalism tells us that the system is governed by uneven development that keeps countries that are already developed rich, and the underdeveloped countries poor (Fernandes 1976). A structural system opposition between center and periphery is called imperialism from the perspective of Amin (2015). According to this author (2014, 2015), we live in an era of generalized monopolies, in which transnational companies control the dynamic of the system. However, power is determined by the dominant states in a kind of collective imperialism. For the author, globalization only exists due to the interventions of US armed forces, and the administration of the dollar as a system is managed by state instruments, not the market. Thus, collective imperialism acts offensively in the world, in two ways. In the economic sphere, it imposes globalized neoliberalism and in the political sphere, it promotes a system of continuous intervention, through the five monopolies: technological, financial, natural resources, communications, and military (Amin 2003).

In other words, imperialist states, through their large transnational companies, in oligopolistic markets that have technological supremacy, establish themselves globally through the financial market, demanding the internal deregulation of dominated countries and cheap access to natural resources and the workforce. To ensure that this system works, there is constant ideological control through the media and the maintenance of submissive armed forces, whether ideologically or under pressure from the power of arms. This makes the possibility of development in the global south unfeasible. Capitalism manages to maintain its accumulation along the same lines as the colonial system: ultra-exploitation of labor, deepened by the technological increase in productivity and by, often masked, structural racism that keeps societies segregated; plus the plundering of the land, expressed in natural resources extractivism. (Harvey 2003; Nascimento 2016; Veltmeyer and Petras 2019). A neocolonial system disguised as globalization.

The rise of Morales is directly marked by an anti-imperialist character. His plan to develop Bolivia had as a starting point national sovereignty, and in this, the Bolivian lithium industrialization strategy is a central element. The country has the world’s largest reserves of this metal, which in recent decades has become central to the geopolitics of energy. In this sense, the goal of this chapter is to demystify the economic project of the ‘process of change’ and situate the lithium industrialization strategy in the context of Bolivia’s extractivist economic model. Furthermore, the chapter seeks to assess the role of lithium in one of the main challenges to be faced by the MAS’s fourth term, i.e. the return to the path of prosperity and income distribution, after the economic paralysis caused by the coup d’état and the health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the first part, we discuss the new economic model developed during the Morales government to overcome underdevelopment in Bolivia and its intrinsic relationship with vivir bien. In the second part, we discuss the importance and potential of lithium for the Bolivian resource industrialization strategy and in the third part we discuss the present geopolitical context and its implications. The three discussions combined lead to the conclusion that in Bolivia there is a continual political process that is intrinsically linked to social movements organization and economically based on extractivism, while its direction is guided by a permanent change to a post-capitalist perspective.