(CN) — In exile in Mexico this week, ousted Bolivian President Evo Morales said he’d learned there was a $50,000 bounty on his head and feared that if he remained there would be a massacre of his supporters.
Morales said he resigned on Sunday to stop bloodshed being organized by right-wing elements among the police, army and militias.
Morales and his supporters called his ouster a military coup; his opponents say he fled after rigging an election to claim a fourth term. What seems certain is that he flew into exile after the head of the armed forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, told him it was time to go.
Morales swiftly boarded a plane provided by Mexican President Andrés López Obrador and flew to exile in Mexico. Upon landing in Mexico City on Tuesday, Morales thanked López Obrador for saving his life. In a tweet that day, he called the woman who proclaimed herself interim president, Senate Speaker Jeanine Añez, “a coup-mongering right-wing senator” (Una senadora de derecha golpista).
So has another Latin American democracy been overthrown by a military coup?
Bolivia had seen weeks of unrest after October elections and Morales’ opponents disputed the results. Supporters and opponents of Morales took to the streets across the country — South America’s poorest, though Morales, who had governed since 2006, presided over dramatic reductions in poverty.
Morales insisted that the wealth of Bolivia’s mining sector belonged to the Bolivian people and that foreign mining firms could own only a minority stake in operations. In some cases mines were taken over by the state.
Long court battles followed over the value of mining operations that were nationalized. Throughout his 13 years in office, Morales sought foreign partners who would provide capital and expertise, under the condition that they respect that the wealth from gas and minerals belong to the people of Bolivia.
This has been especially difficult with respect to lithium, a mineral used in cellphones, laptops, electric car batteries and medicines. Bolivia is believed to have more than half the world’s supply of lithium, buried in pools underneath an enormous salt deposit high in the Andes.
That salt flat — the world’s largest — is called Salar de Uyuni. Once a huge prehistoric lake, it is a 5,000-square-mile deposit of flat shiny white salt sitting on top of lithium brine. A complicated process separates the lithium from the brine by evaporation.
A ton of lithium carbonate sells for about $17,000 a ton today, down from its high in 2017 of $25,000 a ton. As the auto industry is expected to switch from fossil fuels to battery power in coming years, the demand for lithium will skyrocket, bringing welcome riches to the country, 20% of whose 10 million residents are indigenous peoples, and 68% of whom are mestizo.
Bolivia’s plans to develop a battery industry and an electric vehicle industry have been stalled by the reluctance of foreign capital to risk investing in a country that insists on limiting profits.
A deal with a German company for an initial investment of $250 million to manufacture lithium carbonate at Uyuni was reached in late 2018, with plans to begin production in 2021, and to produce 40,000 tons of lithium hydroxide by the end of 2022, according to Bloomberg News.
“Demand for lithium is expected to more than double by 2025,” Bloomberg reported. “The soft, light mineral is mined mainly in Australia, Chile and Argentina. Bolivia has plenty — 9 million tons that have never been mined commercially … until now there’s been no practical way to mine and sell it.”
The agreement appears to have fallen apart on Nov. 4 — six days before the alleged coup.
With Morales gone, it is expected that the new right-wing government will return to the table and revive the lithium agreement.
(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)