Lithium, geopolitics, and coup d’etat

In an interview with Russian media Sputnik News (2019), two months after the turbulent Bolivian elections of October 20, 2019, US Republican Senator Richard Black declared

I think there was concern on our part that the Chinese might begin to exert influence within Bolivia. And that it might have somehow made it more difficult for the United States to obtain lithium for batteries that we’re now using in automobiles... 1 think it was part of the equation at least.

This was said amid discussions about the intervening role in Latin America that his country’s government seems to have resumed under President Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine.

The hegemonic narrative about the 2019 elections does not deal with the issue of possible US intervention. For the dominant communication channels, Morales’ resignation was the result of legitimate internal movements of the Bolivian middle class against Morales’ perpetuation in power and alleged fraud in the election. This was only put in check in June 2020, when the New York Times released a scientific report (Id-robo et al. 2020) that indicated the inconsistency of the fraud assumption in the OAS audit over the elections (Kurmanaev and Trigo 2020).

For our interpretation, that understands this process as a coup d’etat, it is essential to comprehend Bolivia’s attempt at insertion in a global market on the basis of sovereignty and explicit anti-imperialist rhetoric. The case of lithium is emblematic in this regard. Morales’ power was directly linked to the idea of governing by social movements, which conjectures an extraordinary force to establish a sovereign project. Beyond this, the strategy of macroeconomic pragmatism prevented most foreign interventions through the financial market, effectively defying the imperialist technological monopoly. Every system is controlled by rules that guarantee the maintenance of the transnational companies’ hegemony through patents. According to Veltmeyer and Petras (2019) there is permanent control over innovation in a monopoly of brainpower, and the unfeasibility of new technologies that threaten such hegemony. The authors call this the Imperial Innovation System.

It took Bolivia almost ten years to organize the necessary conditions for the primary processing of brines and managed to develop the initial evaporation and processing methods. It also managed to build a national integration infrastructure capable of making the project viable. With that, it was hoped to reach more advantageous agreements for the other industrialization stages, in which there could be technology transfer, to avoid the transnationals’ access to raw material without added value.

Although Bolivia managed to circumvent to a certain extent the technological, financial, and natural resources monopolies, a break with communications and military monopolies has not been achieved. Despite attempts to reduce the influence of the dominant media and to build sovereignty within the armed forces through the establishment of an anti-imperialist military school; the practical results of these measures have been minimal. The political crisis that was initiated at the end of 2019 needs also to be understood in the context of a hegemonic dispute between the United States and China, i.e. the Chinese expansion since the beginning of the century and the consequent reaction by the United States to resume its influence in the region. The Chinese expansion in Latin America is centered on expanding credit availability through Chinese development banks and Foreign Direct Investment (FD1), mainly in the construction of infrastructure, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For Baiyi (2016), Chinese cooperation is established to raise the Chinese companies’ position in global value chains and ensure the external supply of raw materials and commodities.

For Bolivia, China seems to occupy the space of main strategic partner, as illustrated by the signing of several bilateral agreements. This is evident in a series of strategic partnership agreements signed between countries on a bilateral basis. An amount of US$ 1.7 billion was sent for development assistance and the execution of 11 major infrastructure works (Koleski and Blivas 2018), indicating the Chinese interest in gaining access to Bolivia’s natural resources. Lithium seems to be central. In addition to the principle of the agreement established with YLB for the fourth phase of the Bolivian lithium strategy, the construction of the industrial plants in the Uyuni Salt Flat was carried out by Chinese companies (YLB 2020).

The Chinese ‘invasion’ in Latin America is the touchstone of the reaction that the United States has established for the region. The US interference in Bolivia is historic, mainly around the alleged confrontation with narco organizations (drug traffic) that masked the interests in accessing natural resources. Quintana (2016) indicates this process, exposing its most recent context in ‘Bolivialeaks’. Besides, since 2013, the impetus to destabilization movements in Latin America has been fostered by US-based institutions, such as Atlas Network (Macedo 2018). In this sense, Trump’s rise is symbolic, presenting a more explicit version of a ‘New Monroe Doctrine’. After the Pink Tide, Latin America has moved towards the right, under US aligned presidencies such as those of Jair Bolsonaro and Sebastián Piñera. For Veltmeyer and Petras (2019: 130), this resumption allowed Trump to preside over all of America, with a few exceptions. The intervention system, in a kind of conservative restoration - with hints of fascism in direct clash with progressive agendas - is justified by the supposed need to retake democracy in the region against the Chinese imperialist rise. As a result, electoral systems in many countries have been occupied by Trump’s allies, with political victories that have generally been marked by illicit means, controversial elections, fraught with violence, corruption, and US complicity (ibid.).

At the end of 2019, Bolivia was violently inserted into this process. The destabilization experienced since 2019 substantiates the discussion around imperialism and the hegemonic dispute. The Lithium project was one of the determining fronts of the coup, where business movements in the Potosi region demanded better royalties for the Department, the cancelation of the association with the German company and Morales’ resignation. The plan for battery production was suspended as a result.

However, the ‘New Monroe Doctrine’ seems to be in crisis as a new progressive wave (re)awakes in Latin America. Next to left wing governments in Mexico and Argentina, Ecuador and Colombia are facing constant popular movements and social protest against neoliberalism. Venezuela, despite the very serious political, economic, and social crisis, continues to resist US imperialism. In Chile, popular pressure has just called a popular constituent through a plebiscite, and in Bolivia, MAS has seen a historic political turnaround in which the coup was defeated massively at the ballot box.

The industrialization of lithium remains the bet for an emancipated future for Bolivia. Luis Arce won the elections promising to continue the ‘process of change’ and economic recovery. The president indicated his anti-imperialist stance and was averse to access any support coming from international institutions determined by the logic of North American imperialism, such as the IMF, which, during the coup process, carried out financing operations for the Anez government.

On the other hand, partnerships with China set the tone for the Bolivian recovery. Notwithstanding the contradictions that arise from the combination of a socialist and capitalist model, within the framework of harmonic development that supposedly guides its expansion model, at least for the time being, China has demonstrated to be a different kind of world power. The Chinese expansion model does not align with imperialism as it was established in the history of capitalism (Lopes Ribeiro 2017). Thus, for the continuation of lithium industrialization, Bolivia seems to be open to restarting the partnership with the Germans, who are eager to resume their access to the natural resource. The Bolivian government’s need to balance tensions in the Potosí region may lead to higher conditions around the lithium royalties, but if the Germans do not accept the new requirements, the Chinese may be willing to step in. In the global pandemic scenario, China is the country that presents a more accelerated recovery and Beijing’s ambitions regarding EV are wide (Kuo 2020; Kynge 2020).