The assassination earlier this month of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse is raising new questions about the threat posed by international mercenaries. It also casts a new light on a story The Intercept published last month that revealed the existence of a 2020 coup plot against the newly elected president of Bolivia, Luis Arce, successor to the country’s long-serving leftist President Evo Morales. As in Haiti, the plot would have seen foreign mercenaries deployed against an elected leader. Ryan Grim and Laurence Blair, who worked together on that story, look back on their reporting.
[Introduction theme music.]
Zach Young: This is Deconstructed. I’m Zach Young, producer of the show, filling for our regular host Ryan Grim this week. Because our topic today is one of Ryan’s own recent stories for The Intercept, which I’ll be interviewing him about later in the show.
On November 9, 2019, the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, gave a press conference from El Alto airport, just outside the capital city of La Paz.
Presidente Evo Morales: Quiero denunciar al pueblo boliviano y al mundo entero —
ZY: Morales had been president of Bolivia since his first election victory in 2005. Back then, he was seen as a key figure in the Marea Rosa — the so-called Pink Tide of leftist leaders being elected across Latin America. Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner once called Morales one of the “Three Musketeers” of the Marea Rosa — the other two being Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, elected in 1998, and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, elected in 2003.
Just as importantly, Morales was the first president in Bolivia’s two centuries of independence to come from the country’s Indegenous majority.
But by 2019 he was the last major leader of the Marea Rosa left standing. Chávez had died of cancer in 2013 as his country’s economy cratered; Lula’s Brazil was now in the hands of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
EM: — que no respetan la democracia, no respetan los resultados de las últimas elecciones nacionales —
ZY: By the time he gave that press conference from El Alto airport in November 2019, Morales had already lost control of the government. Three weeks earlier, he had won re-election to a controversial fourth term as president. When the opposition began circulating claims of electoral fraud, protestors poured into the streets of La Paz.
In the following days the situation spiralled out of control as the police and then the military turned against their president. The situation was widely described as a coup, not least by Morales himself.
EV: — un golpe de Estado contra un gobierno democráticamente electo —
ZY: He resigned as president on November 10, the same day that the Organization of American States, or OAS, issued a report alleging widespread fraud and irregularities in the election. Later investigations by independent researchers would conclude that the OAS study was rife with inaccuracies, and that there was in fact no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the result. But at the time, the OAS report was crucial in lending legitimacy to Morales’ removal and to the newly installed interim president, Jeanine Añez.
Newscaster: An opposition senator in Bolivia, Jeanine Añez, has declared herself interim president.
Jeanine Añez: [in Spanish, with overlapping English translation] As president of the Chamber of Senators, I immediately assume the presidency of the state.
ZY: Añez issued a decree preemptively shielding soldiers from prosecution for any actions they might undertake in suppressing opposition to the new government. Predictably, there followed a series of massacres against Indegenous Morales supporters:
Newscaster: Deadly unrest in Bolivia, as security forces opened fire on supporters of exiled former president Evo Morales.
ZY: Bolivia’s wealthy conservative elite resented Morales’ redistributive economic policies, which had aimed to reduce poverty in South America’s poorest country. But they similarly resented his promotion of traditional Andean culture, which they regarded as anti-Christian. As she entered the presidential palace on November 13, Añez hoisted aloft a massive Bible and declared…
JA: La biblia vuelve a entrar a Palacio.
ZY: “The Bible has returned to the palace.”
Evo Morales was granted asylum in Mexico. And several months later Bolivia, along with the rest of the world, was plunged into the Covid-19 pandemic.
After multiple postponements, new elections were finally held in October of last year. And the winner, by a sizable margin, was Luis Arce, the candidate of Morales’ Movement for Socialism party, known as M-A-S, or MAS. Almost exactly one year after he went into exile, Evo Morales returned to his home country. And, as far as most people were concerned, that was the end of the story.
As it turns out though, in the days following Arce’s victory, influential figures both inside and outside of Bolivia were plotting to bring about an alternate history, one in which the Arce government would end before it began.
In June, The Intercept obtained audio of phone calls in which a person identified as Bolivian Minister of Defense Luis Fernando López discusses plans to import mercenaries from the U.S. with the goal of overturning the election result.
Luis Fernando López: …levante nuevamente y no permite el gobierno de Arce. Esa es la realidad…
ZY: On the calls, López says that: “The military High Command is already in preliminary talks” regarding a potential coup against Arce. “The commander of the armed forces is working on all of this… right now we have a united armed forces… I guarantee you that this won’t fail.”
In a moment I’ll be joined by our regular host Ryan Grim and his co-reporter on this story, Laurence Blair, to talk about how they were able to verify the authenticity of these recordings and why López’s coup never materialized.
But first, we’ll discuss the recent assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse by a squad of international mercenaries, and what these two stories tell us about the direction of Latin American and Carribbean politics.
I’m joined now by our regular host, Ryan Grim. Ryan, welcome to your show.
RG: [Laughs.] It’s lovely to be on the show.
ZY: And by his co-reporter on the Bolivia story, Laurence Blair, is joining us from Dorchester, England.
Laurence Blair: Hi there.
ZY: Laurence, thanks for being here.
LB: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
ZY: We were going to go straight into Bolivia. But it’s Haiti now that has brought these sorts of covert political operations back into the headlines in a big way.
Ryan, can you run us through quickly what happened in Haiti and what we know about what or who might have been behind it?
RG: Sure, well, earlier this month, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by a for-hire hit squad.
Newscaster: Twenty-eight mercenaries, mostly Colombians, are accused of shooting Jovenel Moïse at his home earlier this month.
RG: A real kind of a wake-up call, I think, for the international community that these mercenary schemes, which are often referred to in the media as half-baked when they don’t come together, can very easily become baked. And several dozen Colombian mercenaries and two Americans acting as translators pretending to be DEA agents were able to get into the presidential residence. It appeared that a small number, roughly seven of the Colombian mercenaries, were in on a separate plan from what the rest of the mercenaries had been told they were up to.
Newscaster: The Colombian government says only a small group knew of the true nature of the job, and the rest were duped into thinking they were hired to support Haitian security forces.
RG: These seven broke off, went to the bedroom in the presidential compound, presidential residence, and shot and killed Moïse and shot and wounded his wife. It appears that this was orchestrated by a kind of rival faction of the Haitian elite. We don’t know for sure yet, there is what appears to be a fall guy who has been arrested who was a South Florida, Haitian-born pastor who does not appear to have either the wherewithal or the wealth to have pulled off a scheme that was this expensive or this sophisticated. And so, just this week, the U.S. essentially kind of forced out the prime minister, and has given its blessing to a new interim prime minister while the country decides how it’s going to get a new president.
ZY: And all of this casts a very new light on the mercenary operation-that-wasn’t that you two reported on last month in Bolivia. For people who haven’t been following this whole saga, there’s a lot of names here that can get a bit confusing. You have, in Bolivia, Jeanine Añez, who was the interim president who was put in place after Evo Morales was deposed in 2019. You have Luis Arce, the candidate of Morales’ political party, MAS, the movement for socialism, who won the election last year.
And, in the audio, you have two main characters. You have a guy who is identified as Luis Fernando López, who is the defense minister under the interim government. And then you have Joe Pereira, who is a somewhat mysterious character, former U.S. Army administrator with ties to Bolivian politics, and who, in the context of these phone calls, is promising to raise mercenary troops to send to Bolivia.
Ryan, who is Joe Pereira and how did he end up on this phone call promising to deliver mercenaries to a high-ranking Bolivian government official?
RG: [Laughs.] It’s a good question. I think who he is kind of would depend on who he’s talking to at any given moment.
It appears as though he spent a significant amount of time in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which is a kind of a Special Forces training ground. And from his time there, he met a number of people who were involved with Special Forces, and that enabled him in the future to then kind of claim a connection to the Special Forces. At times he appears to have suggested that he in fact, himself, served in the Special Forces or otherwise served in the U.S. military. We don’t have records that indicate that.
He is Bolivian-American, born in Bolivia, but he was known as the gringo for reasons that you can imagine. [Laughs.]
RG: And he cultivated that image. He wanted people to kind of believe that he was an American. That had a cache to it. He became a pastor. He was involved with Herbalife, which has a significant presence in Santa Cruz — which is kind of a conservative, wealthier area of Bolivia, home to a lot of cattle ranching and other interests — and got caught up in some fraud allegations, spent time in jail, appears to have been acquitted, but not necessarily released. And, as we understand, is still in prison.
ZY: So I want to bring your co-reporter Lawrence Blair into the conversation now. Laurence, did you have anything to add to what Ryan is saying here about Joe Pereira, this mysterious figure who is at the center of this plot?
LB: Yeah, I mean, to jump in there, we know that he worked at Fort Bragg, which is this Training Center for USSOCOM, and we have documents putting him there in the early 2000s. And he very pretty much played up that experience upon returning to Bolivia.
The first chunk of evidence which we have are these emails sent by Pereira and by another individual in the U.S., between two named individuals who are former contractors: one with Blackwater, Joe Milligan, and one is a former Marine who’s done work during diplomatic protection, a guy called David Shearman. And they’ve got a lot of experience in these kinds of overseas counterinsurgency missions.
The emails we have, and these date from late September last year, are effectively talking about sending a couple of hundred — or at least 250 mercenaries — down to Bolivia from the U.S. to engage in what seems to be a sort of counterinsurgency mission. There’s talk about it being politically sensitive. The date is shifted; it’s postponed because the elections were repeatedly postponed by Añez.
Newscaster: Bolivia postpones general elections for a second time this year.
Newscaster: — nueva fecha para las elecciones en Bolivia —
Newscaster: Hundreds of people are protesting against the postponement of general elections.
LB: In the end, Arce wins the election in late October by a pretty thumping margin, right? He gets about 55 percent of the vote.
Newscaster: A big win for socialists in Bolivia. Luis Arce is set to be the new president.
Newscaster: Gana el delfín de Evo. Luis Arce, candidato del partido del expresidente de Bolivia consigue una contundente victoria…
LB: It’s a huge repudiation of the Añez project, which has been very corrupt, authoritarian. One of her first acts in office was to authorize the military to use deadly force against protests in the defense of public order.
Amy Goodman: In Cochabamba, military forces open fire on Indegenous pro-Morales demonstrators Friday, killing at least nine people, injuring more than 100.
LB: Well, that obviously leads to bloodshed and a few dozen mainly poor and Indegenous MAS supporters who’ve gone out into the streets to protest what many called a coup in 2019; they’re shot and killed.
So Arce wins the election. And it’s in the gap between his victory and taking office about three weeks later that we then have these calls.
RG: Yeah, to bring people up to speed, we got these audios. And I also had learned that Laurence had made some significant reporting progress on the emails from earlier. And so, even though he had been unable to connect all of those dots and finally publish the piece, I reached out and said, “Let’s team up here, because it seems like what is in these audios is very neatly complementary to what was in the emails.”
Because when you only have emails, and you didn’t kind of read them yourself on somebody’s laptop, it’s very difficult to authenticate them without the cooperation of the people who are on the receiving end or the sending end of the emails.
RG: And there was no reason for people at that time to cooperate. But once we had the audio, and Shearman and Milligan kind of then understood that we had a full picture of what had gone on, then they were willing to corroborate the emails as authentic and talk with some openness about the operation.
LB: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, on my first pass-through with them back in October last year, I had some unconvincing alibis: I’m just a truck driver — no, I mean, I’m a scrap metal worker. Then I had a sort of threat of legal action from one of them: You’re going to be in serious trouble if you release these emails, you could be in a serious legal liabilities — which, of course, that obviously sets —
ZY: Not very truck driver behavior.
LB: Well, exactly, yeah. Standard scrap metal guy. Fine, upstanding blokes that they are. But, anyway, so that obviously set alarm bells ringing.
But, like Ryan says, it’s these audios that really kind of blew it open. And probably the most incriminating one is a call between someone we’ve identified as Luis Fernando López, who was a former paratrooper trained in Argentina during their Cold War dictatorship, becomes a sort of master of political spin, political PR, mainly based in Santa Cruz, the kind of conservative enclave that Ryan mentioned.
And he’s made defense minister by Añez, a few days after a session to power, if we can put it that way. So he’s a key player, and ultra-conservative, and in the call we have between the man who we think is him — pretty certain is him — he says he’s afraid that when the masks come back into power, which they will do — they’ve won the election, which he concedes — they’re going to bring Cuban, and Venezuelan, and Iranian spies and operatives in who were going to train these armed militias of the people, who are going to disband the Bolivian Armed Forces.
LFL: Quieren reemplazar las fuerzas armadas bolivianas y la policía por milicias cubanas y venezolanas…
LB: And he says — even separately from Pereira’s offer to bring in, López says, up to 10,000 men to support this second coup attempt — we’re already in discussions about this, me and the commander of the armed forces. We don’t want the armed forces to disappear and we’re working pretty frantically on this.
So there was a real will and intent amongst certain sectors of that Añez administration — not necessarily her, we don’t know either way. But certainly at least one of her cabinet ministers was kind of quite openly plotting to disregard the election in 2020, and install their own president, install a military junta, perhaps.
ZY: You mentioned this idea that pops up a lot on these calls, and seems to be very much on the minds of everyone involved, that Cubans and Venezuelans are on the verge of having the the red carpet rolled out for them by MAS to come into the country and do God knows what — replace the military or overthrow institutions. It sounds very much like a kind of outdated Cold War justification for something like this. We’re not in the era when the U.S.S.R. is pumping tons of money into Cuba; these are just relatively poor countries with leftist governments that maybe are a little friendlier with Evo Morales, but certainly don’t have the wherewithal to invade the country.
Ryan, can you talk a little bit about that, and how serious they took that?
RG: I mean, these are private calls. Certainly López is, at that moment, concerned for his own future, regardless of whether Iran comes in and trains militias, because he knows he participated in this 2019 coup that put Añez in power and made himself defense minister, and he knows that there were people killed in massacres — protesters killed in massacres — he’s aware of all this. And so that alone, you would think, would be enough motivation for this type of operation. But you can’t underestimate the level of paranoia that exists on not just the Bolivian right, but a lot of right-wing movements are shot through with paranoia and so are a decent number of left-wing ones.
So is this something that he tells himself? And how much is it something that he believes? It’s hard to know. But the fact that this is a private call that he never wanted to get out — and he’s still making these claims — suggests that some of this paranoia is real.
Evo Morales had said friendly things about Che Guevara, who has his own history. Che was killed in Bolivia trying to spark an insurgency there —
ZY: Cuban-style revolution —
RG: Mhmm. Among among his little band of guerrillas that went around Bolivia were the relatives, and Laurence may know more about this, Inti and Coco Pereira are two of the lead characters if you’ve ever read Che’s Bolivian diary, and there’s now a leading MAS figure, Pereira, who is, I believe, a brother of them. So there’s a line.
LB: Yeah, there is a Guevarista movement in Bolivia named after Che Guevara and a lot of the MAS leading lights, including Álvaro García Linera, who was Evo’s VP for a long time, was himself a guerilla, right, with the Kataristas.
ZY: There’s a shrine on his death place, isn’t there?
LB: There is. Yeah, I actually went out there for the 50th anniversary of Che’s murder, which, again, worth saying, historically, and this is a fact, that the CIA was heavily involved and even ordered the Bolivian troops to pull the trigger.
ZY: Yeah, you can read now, the cables, to Lyndon B. Johnson —
LB: Yeah. Absolute.
ZY: — saying: We have someone we believe to be Che Guevara.
LB: Absolutely. I really recommend Jon Lee Anderson’s biography on Che, if anyone wants to know a bit more about that in detail.
But, and I will say this, in the village where Che was captured and killed, even today there are people there who are poor, very rural, kind of campesinos, they’ll tell you: They were gonna murder us all in our beds, they had poison bullets, they were going to massacre babies, because the Cold War rhetoric — the dictatorship at that point — was that. And I think that strain has remained very present throughout the Americas, this very virulent anti-communism.
It’s worth saying that Evo Morales himself in exile last January 2020 had kind of aired the idea of creating what he called armed militias of the people in the Venezuelan style — those were his kind of words. Because, obviously, he was not pleased with the armed forces and their role —
ZY: And that sparked a lot of commentary. And he was forced to sort of try to clarify or walk back —
LB: That’s right. And just briefly on those points, he then said: I was talking about this long tradition in Andean communities of self-defense patrols which exist in Peru in particular, but also in Bolivia.
ZY: It would be a weird thing to say if you were proposing that.
LB: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But, perhaps more importantly, Evo, while he retains a huge amount of, let’s say, respect, and kind of influence, he’s not in the Arce government. In fact, you do see quite a bit of water between them. And it’s one thing for an exiled leader to air this and a very different one for it actually to be a policy. And I think the Arce government knows where its bread is buttered, and I think it wouldn’t try to go down that route.
And, in fact, in large part there was quite a positive relationship between Evo, and the MAS, and the armed forces for a long time. Bolivia’s navy, although it’s landlocked as a navy, they were very warm and very positive about what the Morales government was doing to try and get access back to the Pacific Ocean via Chile, the Air Force were given lots of fancy new planes, including a presidential Air Force One-style plane. So actually, the idea that the MAS are incredibly endemically hostile to the armed forces, well, it doesn’t have a lot of evidence behind it.
ZY: I mean, I hate to do the American thing of comparing everything to our own politics, but I can’t help but be reminded of Sidney Powell saying that Venezuelans were behind the stolen presidential election last year.
Sidney Powell: What we are really dealing with here is the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China, in the interference with our elections here in the United States.
ZY: On the one hand, South America is a place that sees a lot more real election chicanery and political violence than we do in the U.S., but it’s the same basic impulse, isn’t it, to see the communists behind every corner?
RG: But at least the Bolivian right blamed Maduro, whereas the American right blamed Hugo Chávez, who is no longer alive.
ZY: Well, Chávez vive, as we know. He vive forever!
Sidney Powell: The Dominion Voting Systems and the software that goes in other computerized voting systems here as well were created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chávez.
ZY: Yeah, so at least in Bolivia they’re updating their communist conspiracy tales.
LB: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the fact that the fearsome Cuban security services can’t even control their own domestic situation, perhaps might cast doubt on their ability to influence Bolivia’s government thousands of miles away.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s widely known that Cuban spies are very influential in Venezuela, and there’s a very close economic and political relationship between their respective governments. But beyond that, it’s kind of the birds, really.
ZY: There’s the other fact then that if you are discussing flying foreign mercenaries into your own country to overthrow the president, it probably helps your sense of moral righteousness to convince yourself that the other side is on the brink of doing the very same thing, perhaps assuages some of the cognitive dissonance that that might produce otherwise.
And I don’t think that López was burdened by much appreciation or respect for democracy to begin with, because, as Laurence said, he acknowledges on the calls that Arce won the election. It wasn’t particularly close. He won in a landslide. So this was not a situation where, even privately, former President Trump will tell anyone who will listen that he actually won the election. I don’t know whether he believes it or not, because he then sometimes says that he got 73 million votes, which is not enough to have won. I don’t know how he has made that connection, if he’s made that connection in his mind yet, but he does appear to at least keep a consistent line in private and public, whereas López was not at all saying that Are had illegitimately won.
And, in fact, in 2019, for people who didn’t follow it closely, the opposition never claimed that Morales lost that election. The only thing that they claimed is that he won the election by less than 10 points, because a 10-point margin would put him out of the runoff, so there would be no runoff, and he would have won automatically. And they had been stoking fears ahead of time of election shenanigans, and then brought people into the streets. But they were never saying that Morales didn’t finish first in the election.
LB: Yeah, that’s right. Whatever criticisms you want to make of the MAS, and there have been a great many, not least from leftist and Indegenous sectors in Bolivia who were critical of the pretty bad environmental record, they were critical of certain signs towards creeping authoritarianism, a sort of sense [that] too much power rested with Evo and not enough with the actual bases, you can’t deny that the MAS — the kind of largest political project in Bolivia — it’s got that reach.
I mean, just a kind of data point, with the election last year, I read a story that was talking about how in a good quarter of the local districts in Chuquisaca, which is in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, they’re having to take ballot boxes on mules to go to these villages, you know?
LB: So that there’s a huge amount of voters who aren’t picked up by, let’s say, the European-descended criollo political parties, but feel represented by the MAS, even if they have their own criticisms and misgivings about its direction at times.
But I think the common thread, just to bring it back to the U.S. — and without casting off my own country’s difficulties as a British person, right? We’ve still got a bloody monarch, and we have a monarchy in power. But I see a common thread in the sense that in certain American societies — and by that I mean, Latin American, North American — there’s a certain sense that certain voters are not worth the same as others, right? Like, in the U.S. case, it’s well, if you’re out in Philadelphia, and you miss out certain cities in the South, which of course might have a predominantly African-American population, then, yeah, the GOP would have won and Trump would have won. You know, likewise, in Bolivia. Oh, sure, well, of course, the Indegenous people and the campesinos voted for MAS, but they didn’t know what’s good for them, and they’re easily led. And, there’s a certain sense of mass politics, participatory politics, that doesn’t actually reflect the best interests of the country. And, you guys have that built into the U.S. Constitution, right? The sense that rural, inland states have that greater power in the Electoral College than the decadent, diverse coastal cities. Right?
ZY: I think that’s what they’re called in the Constitution: decadent, diverse coastal cities.
LB: Yeah. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jefferson wrote, wasn’t it?
So there is a common thread there.
ZY: And it should be said that Bolivia is a country with an Indegenous majority. I think it’s the only one in South America for which that’s the case, or it certainly has the largest percentage of Indegenous population, and for hundreds of years, until 2006, had only European non-Indegenous presidents. And you can see there is a fairly stark display of this at what’s called the House of Freedom in Sucre, which was the old colonial capital of Bolivia. I was there one year before Morales was deposed, and they have a room with portraits of all of the Bolivian presidents going back to colonial times. And it’s just a long, long row of white faces, and then Evo at the end. It’s kind of hard for us sometimes to appreciate quite how much of a shock to the system that was.
RG: Well, maybe people can appreciate it, because we had that same hallway here in the United States.
RG: If you look at the textbooks, 40-plus white guys, followed by Barack Obama. And you did see an explosion of fear, and paranoia, and racism that burst through in 2009 and 2010, that then Donald Trump really tapped into and made himself a political star by being the lead champion of Birtherism.
ZY: Yeah. Although you imagine on top of that, if Obama had actually been the radical socialists that his critics accused him of being, then you have something more like the Bolivian situation.
RG: Right. If he was Joe Biden!
You talked to Eduardo Gamarra, who is a Bolivian political scientist, he’s a professor at Florida International University, and he was talking about people like Joe Pereira, this guy who was promising all these mercenaries. He said, “These guys are a dime a dozen, they all think they’re generals. … They’re dangerous because of what they promise. Conspiracies are generally just that, conspiracies, but they cause a lot of damage, especially in fragile places like Bolivia. All you need is one Pereira to mess things up.”
LB: Yeah. He kind of put the nail on the head there, right?
Reading our story — which, I’ll insert this here, really was a team effort in terms of, obviously, Ryan’s reporting, but also incredible work editing by Maia Hibbett, who really helped put it together, fact checkers, translators, really great to work with The Intercept team on this one, so kudos to everyone involved — but you read the story, and it seems crazy, right? It’s like, thousands of guys flying down, and they’ve got one C-130, how are they all going to fit in that one plane? And how’s this gonna work?
Well, that’s how these coups often pan out, right, is a couple of chances. And Ryan made this point very well in the article, you look at interventions in Guatemala, for example, and other Latin American countries, the guys go in, they sow a bit of chaos, the military perceives the U.S. is backing one side, and then they kind of shift en masse. It doesn’t take a lot to really tip the scales. If professionalism was required in attempted-regime-change operations, well, the Bay of Pigs would have never happened, for example, back in the day; Fidel wouldn’t have been targeted with exploding cigars and things like that.
And I think it is worth saying at this point: We probed the U.S. government angle, some Special Forces sources told a colleague of yours at The Intercept that they were aware of this plot in 2020, but they didn’t think anything would come of it. Well, OK. We’ll take that kind of as read. But the beauty of these kind of things, and again, worth saying, earlier in the year, in May 2020, there was an attempted invasion of Venezuela involving a couple of former Green Berets and some local Venezuelan sympathizers. It was, again, a complete failure — the speedboats landed, they were attacked by local security forces, I think some local fishermen even got involved in sort of repelling this invasion, they’ve later said: Well, we were given a nod and a wink by the Trump administration. Of course the Trump administration denies it.
So there’s a pattern of this stuff going on. And without saying the White House is involved in all of them, it very much suits them if they are a bit improvised and a bit crazy, because they’ve got deniability, and they can wash their hands of it if it goes terribly wrong. If it turns out, and the cards settle and land in their interests, well great. They’ve got a back channel to the ringleaders.
RG: And that is a real pattern throughout the past 70 years or so of the U.S. sort of being OK with a particular plot going off, and having the ability to win either way. If it is the half-baked scheme that it seems like then, like Laurence said, you wash your hands, you say: How outrageous was this? But then if it works, which once in a while does, then everything changes, you come in, and then it was a triumph of U.S. intervention.
Like Laurence said, in 1954 in Guatemala, it was a complete charade. It was a disaster almost from start to finish. But, at the last moment, effectively Arbenz, the Guatemalan president, just kind of lost his nerve and said, You know what, I could probably survive this coup attempt, but it does appear like the U.S. is behind it. But if I flee now, I can definitely survive — not as president, but as a person. When you’re faced with that decision, a lot of people are going to make it, and so if you can create enough chaos, and create the sense that the U.S. is behind it somehow, then sometimes people just give up. And then Iran, too.
ZY: Yeah. To quote Game of Thrones: “Power resides where men believe it resides.” And that often ends up being really critical in these sorts of things, it seems, where if you can just create the impression that things are moving in one direction, you can will that into reality.
You know, in this case, we had a military that was clearly very afraid of reprisals from MAS if they came back to power. And you can very much imagine that if they had successfully crafted a compelling narrative that something was materializing, that military leaders would have started to come to their side.
LB: Oh yeah, definitely. In one of the other audios we have between Pereira and one of his colleagues, seemingly in the interior ministry or the police or the army, he talks about: Well, the plan is we’re going to seize these strategic points, we’re going to make a show of force, with these highly trained, highly equipped commandos. And then once that’s perceived by the military, the police, and also by what he calls civil groups, but these are basically kind of right-wing militias, which operated throughout much of the past 18 months in Bolivia, once they see that, hey, shit’s going down, right, they’ll join in.
There was a very real threat that something could have happened. And I think I’d go so far as to say that the threat is not entirely diminished. You know, I think there are still some very hostile elements within the armed forces in Bolivia to Arce. I think he has replaced the High Command. I guess it’s worth saying at this point that López is in exile in Brazil, the Bolivian authorities have opened an investigation into him, a separate investigation, because he’s already wanted in connection with this mass corruption case involving the import of tear gas at a vastly inflated price from Miami. Again, why does it always go through Miami? Who knows!
ZY: A lot of good international flights into Miami.
LB: Yeah, exactly. You can’t move for the tear gas and mercenaries at the airport there.
ZY: It’s a nightmare if you’re behind them at security.
LB: Yeah, I’m sure. But, so López is in exile in Brazil; Murillo, who was Áñez’s interior minister — and he was mentioned in one of these calls, but it’s not clear whether or not he’s involved or not, he seems to have had his own scheme going on — he’s actually been captured by the FBI in the U.S. and is being questioned in connection with this tear gas case; the generals who are mentioned in our audios have been replaced or are under investigation or, again, have fled the country, one of them is in Colombia. So that immediate threat has subsided.
And this is a trend in Bolivian politics. Again, it goes back to 1825, when the country was created, the army is this kind of institution which just rules the roost and all these presidents come from the armed forces, and I think will probably be stepping quite carefully.
ZY: Yeah. And to bring things full circle, this might be what the behind-the-scenes phone calls would have sounded like in Haiti, if we could have heard the people plotting the assassination there.
RG: Yeah. And with this one, it seemed like events on the ground undermined the planning, like they needed some level —
ZY: They didn’t anticipate the size of his victory in the election.
RG: Right. They didn’t anticipate the size of the victory, and they needed some level of public legitimacy. When they took Evo out in 2019, they had managed to fill the street with protesters who had a variety of different grievances, but, on the back of that, were then able to push him out and seize power.
As it became just increasingly clear that there had been such an overwhelming victory, you saw the same thing happen in the United States, Joe Biden’s 7-million-vote victory, just kind of in the public’s mind, put to bed the whole notion that this was still a contested election, even as the outgoing president continued to push it in the courts, and push it up on cable news and wherever else he could, there was just a sense that you could feel that it was over. And my sense is that the same kind of certainty among the public in Bolivia that this was over made it very difficult for López, and Pereira, and the others to round up the co-conspirators that they would have needed.
LB: Definitely. Yeah. And worth also saying that if this coup had been attempted or happened, Bolivians wouldn’t have taken it lying down. There are very boisterous, very powerful mining unions who have ready access to a lot of dynamite and are not afraid to use it in demonstrations. In fact, miners beat to death a junior minister of Evo Morales a few years ago very tragically in a sort of dispute over pay.
And sure, there are a couple of guns floating around a couple of shotguns, you know, who knows, but it would have been a very uneven contest, and a lot of blood would have been spilled. And that was what really, I think, concerned me before the election, in particular about how dangerous this could have been. We could have seen a repeat of the massacres in 2019, but it would have been very difficult for them to impose their preferred candidate, and in one of the audios, they seem to make a joke or suggestion that that candidate would have been López himself [chuckles], against the will of the Bolivian people, so clearly expressed in that electoral margin. The MAS beats, in that first-round vote, all the other candidates combined.
RG: And what’s also unique about Bolivian politics is the geography of La Paz. Not only is it one of the highest cities, or maybe the highest major city in the world, but there are only really a few ways in and out. And so what that means is that a dedicated band of five to 10,000 protesters can shut the city down, and that has acted throughout the years as something of a democratic check, in a way, against government excesses. It’s how Morales came to power in the first place. He shut down the city in 2005 and forced the resignation of Carlos Mesa who ran again in this most recent election, right, Lawrence?
LB: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: They could have done that, again, if they had attempted this coup without pulling it off immediately and with some public support.
ZY: Any mercenaries that wanted to pull off an operation in La Paz would have to deal with altitude sickness, too, if they’re coming from the U.S. —
LB: Oh, there’s that as well.
ZY: — it’s not fun.
LB: If you see Bakar or Rivo, when they go and play in La Paz against, let’s say, fairly middling, average teams like The Strongest or whoever, it’s 4-1 victories to the Bolivian teams, which are strangely reversed when they when they play back in Buenos Aires. But yeah, you got to reckon with altitude sickness.
ZY: Alright, well Ryan, Laurence, thanks so much for talking to me.
RG: Yeah, thank you, Zach.
ZY: That was Ryan Grim and Laurence Blair.
Before we go, a quick update to our show from last week:
In that episode, Ryan talked with attorney and law professor Zephyr Teachout about the Biden administration’s antitrust policy. They discussed some of his key appointments and speculated about who he might name to head the antitrust division of the Justice department. Here’s what Zephyr had to say about one leading candidate, the antitrust lawyer Jonathan Kanter.
Zephyr Teachout: Jonathan Kanter is the leading candidate from this, let’s just call it the neo-Brandeisian wing, the wing of thinking about anti-monopoly that says: Fairness matters, it’s more than consumer welfare, and we’ve been under-enforcing … we’ve just been asleep at the wheel while there have been all of these mergers, and asleep at the wheel during decades of uncompetitive practice.
ZY: That was last week. And this week?
Newscaster: Google is battening down the hatches for a legal storm, the Biden Administration’s new Department of Justice antitrust nominee has a history of representing companies that have searched the search engine giant.
Newscaster: This movie to nominate Jonathan Kanter is the latest sign that the administration is preparing a broad crackdown on tech.
Newscaster: Big tech faces a big headache in terms of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division.
ZY: Putting Kanter in charge of the DOJ Antitrust Division is the latest sign that the Biden administration is planning to seriously scrutinize the Big Tech companies. If and when they take action on that front, you can be sure we’ll discuss it here.
ZY: That’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. I’m Zach Young, I produce the show. It was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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