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HomeBlogThe Bolivian Coup: Canada Sides With Undemocratic Regime and Mining Interests

The Bolivian Coup: Canada Sides With Undemocratic Regime and Mining Interests

Image credit: Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional

While there have been recent changes to Trudeau’s cabinet, including the top foreign-policy job in the Canadian government, it seems unlikely that Canada will change course regarding the crisis in Bolivia. It has had plenty of opportunities to backtrack from its support of the new regime. Yet, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s governance, Canadian foreign policy in Latin America has danced to the tune of President Trump’s drum.

By Amadeus Narbutt

On November 10th, the military leadership of Bolivia suggested that Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, resign. Many arguments have been leveled in news media to defend the action and claim that it does not constitute a coup d’etat. Yet, as US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders put it in a recent town hall, “The military intervened in that process. When a military intervenes… that’s called a coup”. 

The arguments made by those who support the coup – ranging from accusations of electoral impropriety to unconstitutionality – stand on shaky ground. Further, the far-right regime that has taken control of Bolivia after Morales’ departure is engaging in human rights abuses, violence against indigenous peoples, and has displayed fascist and theocratic tendencies already in the short time they have held power. As such, Canada’s diplomatic support for the coup – which is likely influenced by Canada’s mining interests in Bolivia’s lithium sector – is particularly egregious. 

Morales has been accused of unconstitutionally running for a fourth term. While it is true that a referendum to scrap term limits failed in 2016, term limits were eventually struck down by Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Court, which cited the American Convention on Human Rights’ provisions about democratic participation in its judgment. Further, the court itself is democratically elected, which discredits the argument that Morales’ run for a fourth term flew in the face of the democratic will of Bolivians. Thus, while one can argue about the wisdom of Morale’s run for a fourth term, it was clearly not an anti-democratic act; it did not warrant military involvement in the democratic process.

Morales has also been accused of meddling in the election on October 20th. The Organization of American States (OAS), a regional diplomatic body, released a report claiming that there were ‘irregularities’ in the election. These claims have not been backed up by facts. Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has discussed the lack of proof shown by the OAS and elaborated on Bolivia’s electoral system’s misrepresentation in other reports about the election. In addition, CEPR released a longer statistical analysis of the vote, showing that the eventual result was on track and shows no obvious signs of manipulation, despite the OAS’s claims. Further, the OAS’s neutrality as a diplomatic arbiter should be questioned from the outset. Rooted in Cold War-era American foreign policy, the OAS still retains an imperialist legacy and has acted as an appendage to American diplomacy in the past, including election meddling on behalf of Western interests in Latin America. Canada should not rely on such an organization’s judgment as justification in order to justify coups abroad. At the very least it should discontinue diplomatic support for a new regime that has verifiably engaged in anti-democratic actions, anti-indigenous racism, and the killing of protestors.

Jeanine Áñez, an opposition Senator whose party received only 4.24% of the vote in the election, declared herself interim President of Bolivia after Morales fled to Mexico. Áñez lacks any democratic legitimacy as for now, the military is the major arbiter of power in Bolivia. The interim Interior Minister has accused democratically elected members of the legislature of ‘subversion’ and threatened them with arrest. One of the leaders of the coup, Luis Fernando Camacho, is a Christian fundamentalist who has been involved with the Santa Cruz Youth Union (UJC), a fascist paramilitary organization that is known for using Nazi-style Sieg heil salutes. These fascist and fundamentalist Christian sentiments have fomented violence across Bolivia, specifically directed at its indigenous majority. The intersection of fundamentalist Christian militancy and fascist politics has been alarming: the flag of the Wiphala indigenous nation has been publicly burned by coup supporters, tweets by Áñez accusing indigenous peoples of satanism have come to light, and the regime has issued a decree pre-exonerating law enforcement from any violence committed against anti-coup protesters. At least 26 protesters have already been killed, and the protests are only continuing to grow with a march of indigenous Morales supporters that recently entered the capital city of La Paz. 

The Canadian government still supports this regime despite these concerns. Why might that be? It is likely related to lithium. Bolivia has the world’s second-largest reserve of lithium in its salt flats. Lithium is a crucial component of new green technology, specifically in the batteries of electric vehicles. Shortly after the election, Evo Morales backtracked on a deal to hand over control of Bolivia’s lithium resources to a German mining company, instead of considering some combination of nationalization and Chinese investment. This was unacceptable to the mining interests of Western powers like Canada, who have long had a violent history in Latin America, as well as in Bolivian lithium in particular. The lack of regulation for mining companies headquartered in Canada have made it a safe haven for industrialists who take advantage of Canada’s progressive reputation to cover for their human rights abuses abroad. Arbitration between Canadian mining companies and Latin American governments has impacted Canadian foreign policy before and is a likely factor now. Though it remains to be seen how the new regime will manage Bolivia’s lithium resources, one can predict it will be in the interest of Western industry. At least Tesla Motors’ stock seems to think so.

While there have been recent changes to Trudeau’s cabinet, including the top foreign-policy job in the Canadian government, it seems unlikely that Canada will change course regarding the crisis in Bolivia. It has had plenty of opportunities to backtrack from its support of the new regime. Yet, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s governance, Canadian foreign policy in Latin America has danced to the tune of President Trump’s drum. The new minority status of Trudeau’s government could allow for kingmaker parties like the NDP or Bloc Quebecois to push Canadian diplomacy to the left. However, foreign policy did not play much of a role in the recent electoral campaign, and at least regarding the NDP, a progressive foreign policy does not make the list of their stated priorities in the new parliamentary session. For now, it seems that, at least abroad, it will be business as usual; the lives, safety, and human rights of protesters, indigenous peoples, and the poor will be sidelined in the interests of the industry. 

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor