The Military Coup in Bolivia (How the Media Lies to Us About South America)

In general, I want to avoid current events on this blog, but in this case, I feel I need to speak up.

(Here’s a youtube video that I watched before doing my own research.  I can’t speak to BadEmpanada’s general credibility, but in this specific video he’s factually accurate, and I mostly agree with his analysis.)

I. What Happened

Bolivian elections are a runoff system.  The president is elected directly by the people in up to two rounds.  In the first round, several candidates face off against each other.  If one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, or beats the runner up by more than 10%, then that candidate is the winner.  Otherwise, the top two candidates face off in a second round of voting.

The first round took place on October 20th.  With 83.8% of votes counted, Evo Morales (incumbent, socialist, opposed to US influence) led against the conservative former president Carlos Mesa, 45.3% to 38.2%.  At this point, the transmission from the vote counting was interrupted for 24 hours.  When the results were eventually released, Morales had 47.07% of the vote, compared to Mesa’s 36.51%.

This late rally in Morales’s vote count does not rule out the possibility of a fair election—Morales is particularly popular among rural Bolivians whose votes are generally counted last.  However, the interruption in the vote transmission was highly irregular, and that interruption along with the narrow margin of victory led many (the Bolivian opposition party, OAS, the EU) to call for the second round to take place anyway.

Protests (which were backed by the Bolivian police) against the election result started on October 21st, and became increasingly violent over time.  An article in the Washington Post  describes the chaos,  “Protesters ransacked and burned the homes of senior members of Morales’s Movement for Socialism party and, in at least one instance, kidnapped a relative.”

Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS) (edit: OAS has historically opposed leftism in the Americas, and it receives much of its funding from the USA) audited the election, and found “clear manipulations,” suggesting that the win by a 10% margin was illegitimate.  Early on Sunday (yesterday), Morales agreed to a re-election that would comply with OAS guidelines, including an overhaul of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal whose members would be chosen by parliament.  From the same Washington Post article:

Morales said early Sunday that he would accept the recommendation of the OAS to replace the electoral commission and hold new elections. He also suggested he might not stand for reelection in that vote.

“For the moment, candidacies should be secondary,” he said. “The priority is to pacify Bolivia, to go to a dialogue, and to agree on how to change the Supreme Electoral Tribunal working with the Legislative Assembly.”

Later that same day, the military removed support for Morales, and Morales resigned, condemning his forced resignation as coup and stating:

“We resign because I don’t want to see any more families attacked by instruction of Mesa and [opposition leader Luis Fernando] Camacho. This is not a betrayal to social movements. The fight continues. We are the people, and thanks to this political union, we have freed Bolivia. We leave this homeland freed.”

II. Analysis

(First, some concessions: The details of the October election are suspicious.  A fair re-election is desirable.  And whoever wins that election should be president.)

Mainstream English language news media has mostly refrained from calling this event a “coup,” opting for descriptions like “Bolivia’s Morales resigns amid scathing election report, rising protests” (the title of the Washington Post article where I got much of my information).  So why do I feel comfortable calling it a coup?

When I read through the media depictions of the Morales’ resignation, I feel uncertain about who is in the right.  The details are complicated: Morales likely rigged the election, but the opposition has resorted to violence… if I knew nothing about the American media, I would probably be agnostic in my judgement of these events.

But I don’t know nothing about the American media.

II.i Convincing arguments aren’t always true

Imagine an AI that has been trained on human rhetoric.  The AI starts with some predetermined conclusion (chosen by an external agent), and then collects evidence and forms an argument in favor of that conclusion.  This AI is very good at what it does.  An overwhelming majority of people (say 99%) who hear the AI’s argument are convinced of the pre-chosen conclusion.

Now, imagine you’re being exposed to the AI’s argument.  What is the correct course of action?  Because the AI can easily convince a listener of any conclusion, you know that the convincing-ness of the AI’s argument has no bearing on whether the conclusion is actually correct. The best course of action is to ignore the AI’s argument and stick with your prior.

(I think I got this thought experiment from Slate Star Codex, but I can’t find it. Here‘s a different SSC post discussing essentially the same thing)

A more real-world corollary of this thought experiment is: If a person or institution is known to be convincingly incorrect in some particular direction (let’s call that direction “right”), a rational actor who is listening to that person or institution, who draws an initial conclusion without considering the bias of the information source, should assume that the truth lies somewhere in the opposite direction (to the left) of said initial conclusion.

If I know that English language media has a particular bias, I need to counteract that bias before reaching my final conclusion.

II.ii What bias does the English language media have?

In the book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman lay out a propaganda model of American mass media.   Chomsky later described this model succinctly with the analogy, “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”  In a country like the United States with a government that maintains its legitimacy through public approval, control is maintained through control of information.  Yes the government rules with the consent of the people, but consent can be manufactured through propaganda.

Of course, the American media is not owned or operated by the state, and the US has possibly the strongest free speech protection in the world, which raises the question: If the media is independent, how does the government ensure that it publishes propaganda?

The answer is that the government and the media are beholden to the same larger corporate system.  Most news organizations are for-profit institutions that are either part of a large conglomerate, or privately owned by a powerful individual (for example the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos).  Furthermore, most of the revenue for these mass media companies comes from advertising, meaning that advertisers hold sway over what kinds of ideas are presented.

These perverse incentives mean that the media is not beholden to the truth, or to the well-being of the public, but instead serves the interests of the powerful elite.  Journalists with opinions that are more convenient to the elites are more likely to be hired.  Stories that serve the elite are more likely to be headlined.  Dissident thinkers, on the other hand are less likely to be hired, and stories that are inconvenient to the central narrative are relegated to the less read sections of the newspapers.  When a dissident thinker achieves any sort of popularity, they receive flak from the rest of the media.

Through this media control, as well as through lobbying, special interests are able to influence elections, which ultimately means that they control the government.  The government, like the media, then, acts in accordance with these special interests. Therefore, the government and the media are mostly in alignment, and accordingly the “independent” media pumps out pro-government propaganda.

(Here‘s an animated video that sensationally explains the model in greater detail over dramatic music.  It’s a mostly accurate representation of Chomsky’s ideas, although it’s incomplete, and doesn’t delve into any of the evidence that backs up the model.)

In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman attempt to test the propaganda model using scientific tools.  The propaganda model predicts general alignment between media narratives and pre-existing government policy, while the more standard model of media as a check to government predicts the opposite.  Chomsky and Herman perform case studies, using quantitative and qualitative data, to assess how each model holds up.

One of their findings is that the American mainstream media overwhelmingly paints US client states as legitimate, and states opposed to US influence as illegitimate.  Chomsky and Herman compare the media treatment of the 1984 Nicaraguan general election, held by an anti-US government, with the treatment of the US sponsored Latin American elections in El Salvador and Guatemala.  Their findings are summarized in the book’s introduction:

In El Salvador in the 1980s, the U.S. government sponsored several elections to demonstrate to the U.S. public that our intervention there was approved by the local population; whereas when Nicaragua held an election in 1984, the Reagan administration tried to discredit it to prevent legitimation of a government the administration was trying to overthrow. The mainstream media cooperated, finding the Salvadoran election a “step toward democracy” and the Nicaraguan election a “sham,” despite the fact that electoral conditions were far more compatible with an honest election in Nicaragua than in EI Salvador. We demonstrate that the media applied a remarkable dual standard to the two elections in accord with the government’s propaganda needs

In brief, the set of standards that the media uses to decide whether an election is fair and free depends on whether the election serves US interests.  For just one example, voter turnout in the US sponsored elections of El Salvador and Guatemala was interpreted by the media as support for the election.  In Nicaragua, where the turnout was also large, the media instead focused on coerced participation. Of course coerced participation should be a matter of concern in all elections.  Chomsky and Herman illustrate the hypocrisy:

…the elections in El Salvador were held under conditions of military rule where mass killings of “subversives” had taken place and a climate of fear had been established. If the government then sponsors an election and the local military authorities urge people to vote, a significant part of the vote should be assumed to be a result of built-in coercion. A propaganda model would anticipate that the U.S. mass media make no such assumption, and they did not.

In El Salvador in 1982 and 1984, voting was also required by law. The law stipulated that failure to vote was to be penalized by a specific monetary assessment, and it also called on local authorities to check out whether voters did in fact vote. This could be done because at the time of voting one’s identification card (ID, ddula) was stamped, acknowledging the casting of a vote. Anybody stopped by the army and police would have to show the ID card, which would quickly indicate whether the individual had carried out his or her patriotic duty. Just prior to the March 1982 election, Minister of Defense Garcia warned the population in the San Salvador newspapers that the failure to vote would be regarded as an act of treason…. Given the climate of fear, the voting requirement, the ID stamp, the army warning, and the army record in handling “traitors,” it is evident that the coercive element in generating turnout in Salvadoran elections has been large….

In Nicaragua, while registration was obligatory, voting was not required by law. Voter-registration cards presented on election day were retained by election officials, so that the failure to vote as evidenced by the lack of a validated voter credential could not be used as the basis of reprisals.  Most of the voters appeared to LASA observers to be voting under no coercive threat—they did not have to vote by law; they were urged to vote but not threatened with the designation of “traitors” for not voting; there were no obvious means of identifying nonvoters; and the government did not kill dissidents, in contrast to the normal practice in El Salvador and Guatemala. In sum, Nicaragua did not have a potent coercion package at work to help get out the vote—as did the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments.

II.iii So what does all of this tell us about Bolivia?

Whenever we see a story similar to what has happened in Bolivia, one of our first instincts should be to check whether the leader in question opposes US influence, and the answer to that question should influence our interpretation of the information.  We know that the media is biased toward portraying US client states as legitimate, and socialist states as illegitimate.  And we have to accept that we’re human and prone to being swayed by our constant media exposure.  Therefore, we have to adjust our own conclusions to counteract media bias.

This does not mean that we should ignore the news, or jump to the conclusion that any government being condemned in the US media is good.  Instead it means that we need to be vigilant against known media biases that infect our beliefs.  (Notice, for example, that the headlines on recent news about Bolivia have rarely highlighted the violence of the protests, whereas any violent protest against a US client state is sensationalized.)

I’m not really informed enough to have a clear judgement on who is in the right in Bolivia.  Election rigging (edit: if the election was rigged) is definitely bad.  Military takeovers are also usually bad.  My sense here is that deposing Morales was more anti-democratic than democratic, but I don’t know for sure.

But I am confident that the news media would not hesitate to call a similar resignation a coup if it happened in a US-sponsored state.  Therefore, I call the Bolivian resignation a coup in order to maintain consistency.  It is more important to be consistent than to be correct in any individual instance.  The mainstream media will try to push us toward believing that such-and-such election is a step toward democracy.  Or such-and-such government is anti-demorcatic.  And they will do it convincingly.  If we try to draw conclusions based only on the evidence that the media provides us, without correcting for its known biases, then we fall victim to a system that is doing its best to use our voting power to support special interests.  Supporting states that the media portrays as democratic, and opposing states that the media portrays as anti-democratic does not serve democracy.  Instead, it serves a group that is pushing for the global supremacy of American elites.

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