A Coup By Any Other Name Would Be Just as Wrong
Drew Holland Kinney explains why Morales’ removal from power in Bolivia was a coup, and the refusal to call it what it is impedes our understanding of military interventions in politics:
With these historical patterns in mind, a familiar drama predictably unfolded surrounding characterizations of last November’s coup in La Paz, as opponents of Evo Morales claimed revolutionary credit for pushing out the leader at the barrel of a gun. Nothing about these events was unique to coup politics or Bolivia, where there have been 43 instances of regime change since independence from Spain. Senior military officials typically lead coups during protests, which tend to initially lack violence. A repressive wake then follows, likely when “the incentives for restraint disappear,” according to Erica De Bruin.
Despite Morales detractors’ best efforts to label his ouster as a revolution, it is hard to deny that this was a banal example of military intervention, not a unique something-by-another-name. Unfortunately, until we reclaim civilian participation as “normal” in coup politics, civil-military allies will continue to successfully spin their seizures of power as revolutionary heroism. Engaging in this post-coup name-game hinders our ability to recognize coups as such — and to recognize that the event itself and its justifications are conceptually distinct but normatively related.
When the military intervenes in politics, it often does so in tandem with civilian protests and military leaders use those protests as a pretext for their intervention. The involvement of civilians in the effort to overthrow a leader does not make it any less of a coup. That is a common feature of many coups around the world. Kinney continues:
This was a typical example of a military coup d’état. Emblematic of military interventions that are preceded by protests and supported by civilian elites, Morales’s opponents and international observers immediately questioned the coup label. The former president’s critics maintain there was no coup because his election was illegitimate and the military was merely “playing peacekeeper,” even as events after his departure exhibit all the trademarks of a coup.
There were very few American politicians that correctly characterized Morales’ overthrow as a coup. Bernie Sanders happens to have been one of them, as I mentioned last month:
Sanders criticized the way that Morales was removed from power and argued that it was a coup, but it is quite a stretch to say that he “supported” the Bolivian leader. Whatever one thinks about Morales, it is reasonable to characterize his removal from office as a kind of coup, and as a general rule we should expect American politicians to disapprove of coups against elected leaders regardless of their politics.
Sanders’ willingness to call the coup in Bolivia by its right name is one of the things that is so refreshing about his foreign policy views. There was no political advantage to be gained in criticizing Morales’ overthrow, but he said it anyway because he saw it for what it was and objected to it on principle. Most politicians in the U.S. either shrugged at or approved of the result of the coup, but Sanders protested because he thought it was wrong.
To appreciate how rare this is in U.S. politics, let’s consider how our political leaders usually respond to coups in other countries. The first question they usually ask is, “Did we support the leader who was overthrown?” If the leader is perceived to be an adversary or even non-aligned with the U.S., the coup is often touted as a great victory for democracy. If the leader was a client ruler, it is judged to be a terrible setback for freedom and humanity. When the Egyptian military intervened in 2013 and removed Morsi from power, this obvious coup was spun as something else because it was useful to the post-coup government and to the U.S. to pretend that it was not a coup. John Kerry absurdly claimed that the military was “restoring democracy” by removing Egypt’s first democratically elected president. A little over six years later, Egypt is ruled by a dictatorship that is far more repressive than it was even during Mubarak’s dictatorship, and U.S. support for the dictator in Cairo is as strong as ever. If the U.S. had followed our own laws, Egypt should have been cut off from all military aid following the coup, but there was never a complete cutoff and even the limited restrictions that were put in place were lifted after a short interval. Our government deplores coups, provided that they are directed against people that we like. The rest of the time, euphemisms and excuse-making are the order of the day.
We saw this again last year in Venezuela when the attempted coup there failed. The U.S. government and some major newspapers clearly wanted there to be a coup, they had wished that it had succeeded, but even then they pretended that it had not been an attempted coup at all. Coup supporters know that coups are still considered illegitimate, and so they are careful to describe it as anything but that, but it doesn’t change the reality of what they are trying to do.