Just under a year after Evo Morales’s government was ousted by U.S.-backed far-right forces, his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party looks almost certain to take back power after Sundays’ election. Morales, the country’s first indigenous president,remains in exile in Argentina. His election in 2019 remains hotly debated: While the Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) challenged the result due to a gap between preliminary and final results, subsequent analyses have argued that the gap was explainable and legitimate, and that the OAS assessment was “flawed” and highly political. Now, with an estimated 52.4 percent of the vote, Morales’s former finance minister Luis Arce is on track to become the country’s new leader after a deadly year of racist state repression under interim president Jeanine Añez Chávez.
Bolivia’s tumultuous last year also features a powdery white subplot with worldwide implications. Not long after being forced out of the country, Morales and many of his supporters argued that he was ousted in part as a response to his attempts to nationalize the country’s lithium—a mineral used in batteries that power various clean energy technologies, including electric cars. “My crime, my sin, is to be an Indian,” he told American journalist Glenn Greenwald in an interview, “and to have nationalized our natural resources, removed the transnational corporations from the hydrocarbon sector and mining.” Morales had hoped that state-owned Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano (YLB) would be able not just to mine lithium but refine it into lithium hydroxide and other compounds used in battery manufacturing. Tesla executive Elon Musk—whose renewables empire sources lithium mostly from Australia, not Bolivia—added to theories about a potential lithium coup this summer by tweeting, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
While CIA documents thirty years on could certainly prove otherwise, there’s not much evidence as of now to suggest that Musk or other U.S. clean energy titans were actually involved in the plot to overthrow Morales’s government. For one, political scientist and Resource Radicals author Thea Riofrancos explains, lithium isn’t scarce, and supplies of it weren’t being cut off from foreign investors. “Although Morales was pushed out in a coup, it wasn’t because of lithium. There was no real obstacle facing capital investment in Bolivia, and Morales had never been opposed to that,” she told me. Arce’s platform on lithium is broadly similar to Morales’s, including the creation of some 130,000 jobs, with an openness to working with foreign companies. But the fact that people are talking about a “lithium coup” at all could preview a new era of extractive geopolitics.
Given its history of dealing with resource wealth abroad, it’s not irrational to think the U.S. might leverage its foreign intelligence apparatus to corner the lithium market. The modern fossil fuel economy was built in no small part on imperial might, including that of the United States, which backed myriad challenges to governments that tried to nationalize their resources both in Latin America and around the world. CIA meddling in foreign governments has been one of the many forms of invaluable state support offered to extractive industries, including tax breaks and cheap leases. There are plenty of ways in which minerals needed for clean energy development could be bound up in the same sort of rank extractive politics that have defined the fossil fuel economy, and in some ways already are; it’s why groups like Amnesty International have raised alarm bells about labor abuses in mineral mining, and called for the creation of an “ethical battery.”
There are some important specifics, however, that distinguish clean energy supply chains from those created around fossil fuels. Lithium isn’t nearly as geographically concentrated, for one. And it isn’t currently scarce. But the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects lithium production will grow twice as fast in lower-emissions scenarios as a result of policies to scale up the production and use of cars and clean energy. “The fact that it’s abundant doesn’t tell you very much about how quickly that lithium can get to market and become an input in another industrial process. What’s scarce is not lithium in the earth’s crust. It’s financing for lithium projects that will quickly produce battery grade lithium chemicals,” Riofrancos said.
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic.