In the wake of the November 10 coup in Bolivia that removed President Evo Morales and installed a right-wing government led by Jeanine Áñez, the first thing many mainstream commentators debated was whether what had just happened was actually a coup. According to the putsch-supporting New York Times editorial board, Morales’s impressive economic record had simply been the subterfuge that “propped” him up — the repeatedly reelected president was a “strongman” who had it coming. In the eyes of Morales’s opponents, the racist and anti-indigenous elite that took power was a popular, even democratic, movement. The coup was no longer a coup.
Coups can take a variety of forms, but they are not especially difficult to identify. They often involve crises (sometimes manufactured) that are weaponized against democratically elected leaders or governments. Outside help is often needed, since by definition, the coup plotters do not enjoy widespread support or a popular mandate. Immediately afterwards, an imposed or self-proclaimed leader takes control and charts a very different course for the country, suppressing dissent while seeking legitimacy from the international community. The United States and other powerful countries typically oblige, sweeping in to provide the coup government legitimacy.
Bolivia is a textbook example. No one disputes that Morales’s presidential term extended until January, and few dispute that Morales won a plurality of the votes in the October 20 elections that sparked the crisis (although they might argue by how much). While many mainstream outlets reported that the military “suggested” Morales resign, when people with guns “suggest” you do something, it’s coercion. (More blatantly, many members of Morales’s MAS party were forced to step down when they or their families were subjected to violence or threatened.)
No one voted for Áñez or the organized, right-wing movement that backed her, and few elite international observers objected to the illegal maneuvers used to install her as president. Once Áñez took over, she granted security forces immunity as they massacred pro-MAS protesters (Morales had declined to use force against opposition demonstrations just the week before). She radically reshaped the country’s foreign policy, quickly expelling doctors from Cuba. And given the repression facing Morales and his party, it’s unclear whether future elections will be free and fair (though it is likely the international community will declare them so). Altogether, this string of events points in one direction: what happened on November 10 was a coup.
Why does this matter for presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? Being able to see through the obfuscation emanating from dominant channels and crucially, to challenge these misguided narratives, is something candidates must be able to do once in office. Their responses to the Bolivian coup give us some idea of how they would comport themselves if elected. And the differences are telling.
Sanders was the first, and at one point the only, candidate in the field to characterize Morales’s ouster as a coup. At a Univision forum shortly after the putsch, he told journalist Jorge Ramos: “at the end of the day, it was the military who intervened in that process and asked him to leave. When the military intervenes … in my view, that’s called a ‘coup.’” He also praised the deposed leader’s accomplishments, saying “Morales did a very good job in alleviating poverty and giving the indigenous people of Bolivia a voice that they never had before.” (Sanders reiterated his characterization a few days later.)
Warren’s response was quite different. While she insisted that the country’s “interim leadership” hold “new elections” and exercise restraint toward protesters, she did not call what happened a coup. Later she appeared to refine her position, saying it “sure looks like a coup.” Still, when asked about the Organization of American States’s (OAS) role in Morales’s ouster, she hedged, saying that the OAS should be independent without acknowledging the significant role the institution played in destabilizing the nation and helping orchestrate the coup. She also failed to recognize the significance of Morales’s government to the region and the country’s long-oppressed indigenous majority.
Morales, who swept to power as part of the left-wing “pink tide” governments,” was Bolivia’s first indigenous president in a country with the highest percentage of indigenous people in Latin America. He became a tribune for that part of the population, which had long been scorned by the country’s elite and excluded from political life. “Indigenous, leftist, and anti-imperialist,” Morales became an example to many around the world, overseeing an impressive turnaround in the economy, nationalizing key industries, and drastically cutting poverty.
Warren’s call for new elections suggests either unawareness about the grave injustice that was done or a hesitation to acknowledge what happened. But simply calling for new elections isn’t enough — Morales agreed to fresh elections before he was forced to seek asylum in Mexico. The situation in Bolivia is not one of process, but power. By not recognizing the de facto regime for what it is, Warren implicitly legitimized its actions as well as the (still unproven) accusations of fraud in the October 20 elections.
The next US president will have wide discretion in foreign policy. We could end the war in Yemen, currently the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. We could finally have peace on the Korean peninsula and end the longstanding US presence there. We could halt the disastrous and illegal use of unilateral economic sanctions, which punish the most vulnerable. And that’s just for starters. In the right hands, these are not difficult changes to make, nor are they hard-to-understand problems. Yet if a president brings a status quo perspective to the Oval Office, or outsources key decisions to the same experts behind the failed foreign policy of previous administrations, little will change.
Warren is clearly closer to establishment positions on foreign policy than Sanders. She recently indicated that she recognized Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela, despite the fact that he holds none of the powers of the office and has no basis for claiming the presidency, other than an unsuccessful coup attempt and an unprecedented campaign by the Trump administration to install him. (Sanders refused to acknowledge him as president.) She has also endorsed the use of illegal sanctions against countries like Venezuela, which are undoubtedly responsible for many deaths (Sanders has opposed the use of sanctions in Venezuela and elsewhere.).
The differences between Warren and Sanders aren’t episodic. Sanders’s history and activism have helped shape his internationalist worldview, which understands that struggles for democracy and economic justice are global — and that the United States has often arrayed itself against those fighting for justice. Warren’s foreign policy is rooted in a fairly mainstream liberal understanding of the world and the United States’ purportedly benevolent place in it.
Even without a Democratic majority in Congress, the next president will have an opportunity to break with the shameful foreign policy that has long dominated the office. Sanders, based on his record and his policies, has given more indication that his foreign policy would be markedly different than his predecessors, and that he would end the most egregious policies in place today. Even better — especially if we are successful in renewing the antiwar movement — we might find out what a foreign policy predicated on cooperation and understanding, rather than subjugation and armed intervention, could look like.