Maria Silvia Trigo and Anatoly Kurmanaev have penned an article for The New York Times that describes the dramatic protests in Bolivia against the interim government. As so often in NYT articles, the content reveals more about the newspaper itself than about the topic it analyzes.
Treating the current instability in Bolivia with the perspective acquired 10 months after the ouster of Evo Morales, the former president, should have provided a perfect opportunity to review the complex drama surrounding that coup. Instead, the authors chose to describe the dramatic events unfolding today as a simple contest between two opposing groups. The article reports on the roadblocks organized by anti-government protesters that have paralyzed several cities in Bolivia. It cites two motives behind the protests: “to challenge the delay of general elections and rebuke the government’s poor response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
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The authors have reduced an existential geopolitical drama to little more than a vigorous election campaign between two sides with contrary views of the best way of governing. They do take the trouble to mention, in a single sentence, the crucial spark that set off the crisis: “Mr. Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, was ousted from power in November after a fraught bid for a fourth term.”
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The New York Times has an excellent reason for avoiding to delve into the complex facts behind Morales’ “fraught bid for a fourth term.” The Times itself not only misreported those facts at the time of Morales’ ouster, but the journal actively contributed to justifying a right-wing, anti-indigenous coup led by a fanatically evangelical Christian faction that the US government and its media supported under manifestly false pretenses.
The authors are skilled in The Times’ art of crafting reporting to get a political message across while hiding their own allegiances from view. In the sentence cited above — “Mr. Morales…. was ousted from power” — the authors deftly use the passive construction to exclude any reference to how the ousting took place, by whom and with what objective. It was just something that happened, possibly on its own. The ouster was successful and now belongs to history. The passive mood removes any consideration of accountability.
In an earlier article published in June revealing the uncomfortable truth that the pretext for removing Morales was flawed, the authors also demonstrated their talent at carefully designing their wording to remove the question of agency: “Mr. Morales’s downfall paved the way to a staunchly right-wing caretaker government, led by Jeanine Añez, which has not yet fulfilled its mandate to oversee swift new elections.”
Calling it “Mr. Morales’s downfall” implies that, like Humpty Dumpty, the president teetered and fell off the wall. Nobody pushed him. The metaphor “paved the way” implies that the Anez government simply wandered innocently into a situation of Morales’ making and profited from it. Continuing to call it a “caretaker government” denies what most observers had noticed at least since January: that “the right-wing former senator entered the presidential palace claiming a much bigger mandate,” as Angus McNelly put it.
Finally, adding “yet” to the observation that the Anez government has not “fulfilled its mandate” fails to recognize the increasingly evident fact that it has no intention to keep its promise. The very idea of a “mandate” also obscures the more egregious fact that nobody actually issued a mandate. Back in the thick of events in November 2019, Kurmanaev, quoting Javier Corrales of Amherst College, described the position of the Anez faction: “Without a popular mandate, they are pushing forward some of the most objectionable aspects of their agenda.”
Then there’s the question of possible US involvement, which The New York Times famously dislikes mentioning whenever left-wing governments fall. In the June article, the authors offered a single hint at the US State Department’s likely involvement in the coup. “The United States State Department quickly reacted to the O.A.S. [Organization of American States] statement, accusing electoral officials of trying to ‘subvert Bolivia’s democracy,’” they wrote.
This leaves the impression that the US was nothing more than a neutral observer of the events that played out and that its only interest in the affair is safeguarding democracy. The same article highlighted the flawed accusations of electoral fraud that led to Morales’ ouster — accusations put forward by the OAS, which is largely obedient to the US. Clearly, with hindsight, the US was quite content to see Bolivian democracy not only subverted but canceled.
The article concludes with the now traditional “false balance” or “bothsidesism” characteristic of NYT journalism. Referring to the strategic implications around the current protests and their possible political consequences, the authors quote Filipe Carvalho, a Washington-based analyst. “Both sides are playing the pandemic for electoral gain, adding a new level of tensions,” he said. This leads the journalists to the melancholy conclusion: “Whoever wins will take control of a highly divided country in deep recession and few options to restart economic growth.”
Anatoly Kurmanaev’s article on December 5, 2019, began with this sentence: “An independent international audit of Bolivia’s disputed election concluded that former President Evo Morales’s officials resorted to lies, manipulation and forgery to ensure his victory.”
On June 7 of this year, Kurmanaev and Maria Silvia Trigo provided an update with this explanation: “A close look at Bolivian election data suggests an initial analysis by the O.A.S. that raised questions of vote-rigging — and helped force out a president — was flawed.” Instead of pointing to politically interested deceit, they attributed everything to the fault of undue haste. Quoting Calla Hummel, a Bolivia observer at the University of Miami, they write, “The issue with the O.A.S. report is that they did it very quickly.”
As The Times reporters consistently skirted around the facts concerning Morales’ ouster, two other reporters, Vijay Prashad and Alejandro Bejarano, writing for Salon, have provided a more complete historical background. They have updated the history with a revealing story about how American interests have been involved in the Bolivian economy well before the dramatic events of 2019.
The authors call Morales’ ouster “the lithium coup.” In July, Elon Musk stepped up to the public witness box with a tweet that inadvertently provided evidence of the economic and political intrigue underlying Bolivia’s drama. The billionaire entrepreneur began by advising the American people against the evils of too much generosity. “Another government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people imo,” Musk opined on Twitter. This provoked the following response from a user called Armani: “You know what wasnt in the best interest of people? the U.S. government organizing a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you could obtain the lithium there.”
Instead of denying any connection with the coup, Musk defiantly tweeted: “We will coup whoever we want. Deal with it.” Apparently realizing that this might be interpreted as a confession of collusion, he later deleted the tweet.
This battle of tweets could be dismissed as just another example of Musk’s Trump-like irresponsible addiction to Twitter. It doesn’t prove Tesla’s CEO had any hand in or knowledge of the events that led to the coup in Bolivia, though the lithium factor and Musk’s initiatives in South America would seem to point in that direction.
But Musk’s formulation of his message is revealing. He claims “we” have the right to foment coups. He begins by claiming to speak in the name of the “interests of the [American] people.” But the “we” he identifies with is not the people. It’s US imperial power, a force that for more than a century has intervened against “whoever we want” as it has both successfully and unsuccessfully sought to overthrow any government guilty of showing a preference for the interest of its people to the detriment of American businesses.
On the day following Musk’s original tweet advising against a stimulus package following the economic downturn in the US, The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd published an interview with him in which she affirmed that “he also really does want to save the world and make products that bring joy.” In the end, that’s how The Times has treated all the coups of the past. The rest of the world simply has to learn to “deal with it.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.