Evo Morales: Victim of the Longing for Lithium and yes, the Chinese American Trade War

Evo Morales

Evo Morales spoke the truth when he explained the reason for his fall as leader of his country – it was for no other reason than because he was a socialist who sought to socialize the resources of his country and serve the interests of his people at the expense of the profits of international capitalist corporations.  From the time Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism came to power in 2006, they began to undo the rape of their country’s resources by international firms.  The government went directly after the giant international mining firms that were claiming as their own the precious resources of Bolivia: Glencore, Jindal Steel and Power,  Anglo-Argentine Pan American Energy, and the Canadian firm, South American Silver (now TriMetals Mining), which had been mining not only the silver for which Bolivia was famous, but also rare earth metals such as indium which is used in flat-screen televisions.

In the course of its mining operations South American Silver claimed more and more land, much of it the home of indigenous peoples who protested the company’s invasion of their sacred places and use of violence.  Morales himself came from indigenous people.  In 2012 the Morales government annulled its contract with South American Silver.  Despite the tremendous amount of pressure put on the government by Canada, Morales held firm.  Seven years later South American Silver settled with the Bolivian  government for $25.8 million, about a tenth of what it had earlier demanded as compensation.

Other international companies found themselves in the same position as the government of Morales moved towards nationalization of the natural resources of the nation.  Jindal Steel, an Indian company which mined iron found its contract was put on hold in. In 2014, it won $22.5 million from Bolivia.  The Morales government claimed possession of three facilities belonging to the Glencore, the giant Swiss-based company that was mining Bolivia’s tin and zinc.  This expropriation of Glencore’s facilities was proceeded by an uprising of the miners demanding better working conditions and wages, which was met by violence on the part of the company. It would  be sued by Pan American for 1.5 billion dollars for the expropriation of

Most aggressively, Pan American sued the Bolivian government for $1.5 billion for the of the Anglo-Argentinian company’s stake in natural gas producer Chaco.  Bolivia would settle this suite for 357 million dollars in 2014.  The case brought about by the expropriation of the Anglo-Argentinian company’s stake in natural gas producer Chaco would be  settled for $357 million in 2014.  Thus, at a time when the Bolivian GDP was $28 billion, Morales’ government paid out 1.9 billion to settle its suits. Yet, as devastating as these suits may have appeared, they proved to be quite beneficial to the country in the end, as from the time of Morales coming to power, the size of the economy tripled, and the foreign reserves of the nation grew.  Morales strategy of socializing the countries operations proved to be brilliant.  He would use the resources of the country to benefit its people rather than to make profits for international firms, and the result was that Bolivia’s poverty rate declined and its social indicators rose.


The outstanding Indian historian, editor and journalist, Vijay Prashad, from whom I have gleaned much of the above information, points out in his article “After Evo, the Lithium Question Looms Large in Bolivia” (https://peoplesdispatch.org/2019/11/13/after-evo-the-lithium-question-looms-large-) that the overthrow of Morales cannot be fully understood “without a glance at the nation’s mass reserves of this crucial mineral.”  In turn, it is essential to grasp both what Lithium is and just how important lithium is to the world,  if one is to truly understand the current political situation in Bolivia.

Lithium is a special metal in many ways. It’s light and soft — so soft that it can be cut with a kitchen knife and so low in density that it floats on water. It’s also solid at a wide range of temperatures, with one of the lowest melting points of all metals and a high boiling point.  It was among the first and lightest chemical elements (hydrogen and helium, being the other two), created at the birth of the universe. Theoretically, the universe should hold three times as much lithium as it does, but it does not, an issue called the “missing lithium problem”. The mystery of the  “missing lithium” has preoccupied astrophysicists for some time.  In any case, it is extremely rare, not only in the universe but perhaps resultantly, on the planet earth.  Lithium makes up a mere 0.0007 percent of the Earth’s crust, according to the Jefferson Lab, and it’s only found locked up in minerals and salts. Bolivia claims to have 70 percent of the world’s lithium reserves, mostly in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats

Yet there is an inverse relationship between how rare Lithium is and how diverse and extensive its uses.  Lithium, atomic number 3, is an element of many uses. It is not only, as Vijay Prashad  notes, “essential for the electric car”- being a key component of the batteries on which it runs,  but key element in lightweight, rechargeable power for laptops, phones and other digital devices. https://www.livescience.com/28579-lithium.html

While its use in the production of batteries is its primary use, with 40% of lithium being used for this purpose, approximately 26% of lithium is used in the production of ceramics and glass.  In addition, lithium stearate is mixed with oils to make all-purpose and high-temperature lubricants, lithium hydroxide is used to absorb carbon dioxide in space vehicles, and lithium is alloyed with other metals to make high performance alloys for aircraft.

It is interesting Lithium, lightest of all metals, functions to “lighten” our moods. Naturally occurring lithium in drinking water correlates with lower levels of suicide, according to a 2009 study that highlights lithium’s role in the brain.  Pharmaceutical grade lithium it is used to treat the manic episodes of bipolar disorder (manic depression) the symptoms of which include hyperactivity, rushed speech, poor judgment, reduced need for sleep, aggression, and anger.  It is also used to treat depression, as well as Schizophrenia.

Lithium also plays a role in firework shows when it is mixed with strontium salts to create brilliant red colors.

As a result of its many and varied uses, the demand for lithium has increased even as the amount of lithium in the world remains limited.  In the recent past, Chile and Australia produced the most lithium in the world.  The United States has one lithium mine, in Nevada, according to the USGS.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Argentina and Chile increased their lithium production 15 percent each in 2014 alone to meet the growing demand. Worldwide, production jumped 6 percent that year.  As noted above, Bolivia claims to have 70% of the world’s lithium, nearly all of it undeveloped.

The complexity of the mining and processing has meant that Bolivia has not been able to develop the lithium industry on its own. It requires capital, and it requires expertise.  Thus, the government has struggle to raise the money it requires to mine its lithium in a way that is consistent with its socialist principles which demand that wealth be kept in the country and given to the people.  When Bolivia was unable to make deals with western multinational firms which would allow it to meet it socialist goals, it made the decision to partner with Chinese firms.  In so doing it walked into the center of the head on confrontation between the United States and China – countries who both wanted and needed lithium for their own technological and military purposes.  It was Evo Morales, that socialist man of and from the people, who found himself in crosshairs of that confrontation.  All that was necessary was to prod the Christian right, entice the bourgeoisie of the country, bribe the police, and military and cast lies before the people to oust him from power.

The question now is how will China respond to the fact that now that Morales has been forced to flee his homeland out of fear for his life,  there is no longer any assurance they will  get the lithium they need?

Mary Metzger is a 74 year old semi retired teacher. She did her undergraduate work at S.U.N.Y. Old Westbury and her graduate work In Dialectics under Bertell Ollman at New York University. She has taught numerous subjects, from Public Sector Labor Relations to Philosophy of Science, to many different levels of students from the very young to Ph.D. candidates, in many different institutions and countries from Afghanistan to Russia. She has been living in Russia for the past 12 years where she focuses on research in the Philosophy of Science and History of the Dialectic, and writes primarily for Countercurrents. She is the mother of three, the grandmother of five, and the great grandmother of two.




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