Calling a Coup a Coup: The State Department Ignores the Law, Again

January 07, 2020

Since 1986, US budget bills have included a provision – commonly identified as Section 7008 – that expressly prohibits providing financial aid to governments that have taken power via a military coup. In its most recent form, the provision reads:

None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available … shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree or … a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such government if the Secretary of State certifies and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office: Provided further, That the provisions of this section shall not apply to assistance to promote democratic elections or public participation in democratic processes….

The language of this provision is clear, yet the State Department often fails to act when coups take place. In some cases, this is because the US government supports the coups (in some cases aiding or orchestrating them). It would appear that the US government has a selective approach to dealing with military coups, depending on whether they are seen as favorable or detrimental to US power and influence in the region. In cases in which the US government considers a coup a positive development, the secretary of state often avoids complying with Section 7008 by simply choosing to ignore that a coup has taken place. The aftermath of the overthrow of Evo Morales’s government in Bolivia provides the latest example of how US leaders disregard the law in this way, and indeed how they are growing bolder in doing so.

When Egypt’s elected president Mohamed Morsi was forced from office by the Egyptian army and replaced by former general Abdel el-Sisi in 2013, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was faced with questions about whether or not the event was a military coup, thus calling $1.5 billion in annual US aid to Egypt into question. Her response was that “[t]he law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination.” Though every major media outlet in the world identified el-Sisi’s takeover as a coup, the State Department – to this day – has refused to do so.

Journalist David Francis explained that “[a]ccording to legal experts, the State Department and the White House have extraordinary leeway in what they do and do not term an official ‘coup,’ as well as if and how to … cut aid after formally designating one. Congress can disagree, but there’s not much lawmakers can do in response.” While the Congressional Research Service finds at least eight instances of the coup provision taking effect in the last decade, it also finds five additional examples over the same period in which the US decided it not need worry about the law. An article in the Harvard Law Review examined the provision’s history and found that the government often follows the law, but even then, it does so “as a matter of discretionary policymaking, while avoiding an admission that it is actually bound by the coup provision.”

The restrictions were first included in US law over concerns about a possible military coup in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War. Since then, the US government has skirted Section 7008 several times when coups have taken place in Latin America. This issue was brought into headlines during the early Obama administration over Honduras. In 2009, the left-leaning Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was deposed, at gunpoint, in a US-supported military coup. The United Nations passed a resolution, with US support, condemning the coup and calling for Zelaya to be returned to office. However, the Honduran coup government had powerful allies in Washington and the Obama administration made it clear that it wasn’t eager to see Zelaya restored to the presidency. While the US paid lip service to calls for Zelaya’s “immediate and unconditional restoration,” the Obama administration would block Organization of American States (OAS) resolutions demanding just that, and ultimately signaled it would recognize elections held under the coup regime, “which would render the question of Zelaya moot,” as Hillary Clinton put it in her memoir.

As part of this coup-washing, the State Department briefly tried to argue that, though Honduras did experience a coup, it would not be cutting off all aid because it wasn’t technically a military coup (the two terms “military” and “coup” were in juxtaposition in the original coup provision). Some aid was temporarily suspended until the November 2009 elections organized under the coup government (that the US was nearly alone in recognizing). This caused significant controversy among policy-makers, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, who publicly called on then secretary of state Hillary Clinton to “make it official” and call what happened a “military coup.” In order to prevent the State Department from attempting to skirt the law in this way again, Congress acted in 2011 to broaden the provision’s language to also include “a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” [Emphasis added.]

This makes what is happening in Bolivia right now particularly worthy of note. After the OAS made dubious claims, without evidence, about the integrity of the first round of Bolivia’s 2019 elections, President Evo Morales agreed to hold a new election if the OAS’s audit suggested it was warranted. When the audit’s preliminary results concluded that a new election was needed, Morales followed through on his promise and called for new elections. But, as a recent Congressional Research Service report politely puts it, “his offer did not satisfy the opposition.”

Protests against Morales that had begun before the election started to escalate into violence, and Morales faced a loss of control over the nation’s police force. Then, shortly after Morales agreed to new elections, the head of the Bolivian army asked Morales to resign. Morales, fearing for his family and his own safety and that of his cabinet members, allied lawmakers, and others, obliged, leaving office and fleeing the country along with a number of other officials. This forced departure led Jeanine Añez, a Christian conservative and opposition senator who claimed to be next in line of succession, to swear herself in as president after being elected head of the country’s senate without the required quorum, a move that Bolivia’s top court later appeared to justify. The next day, Bolivian police prevented former and current members of Morales’s MAS party (which holds a supermajority in the legislature) from entering the building. Añez has promised new elections, but whether they can be truly fair given present circumstances is an open question.

What has happened in Bolivia seems to easily meet the definition of a coup under Section 7008: the sitting president, democratically elected multiple times, was removed from power in a process in which the “military play[ed] a decisive role.” He was replaced with an unelected leader whose party won only 4.2 percent of the vote in the last election but who has already started changing policy despite claiming to serve as an interim “caretaker” president until the next elections. However, President Trump quickly Tweeted that the US was supporting Añez, while Secretary of State Pompeo praised her “for stepping up … to lead her nation through this democratic transition…”

Evo Morales was famously a critic of American foreign policy, and during his tenure he expelled the US ambassador who had been meeting with opposition figures amid a 2008 destabilization effort against the Morales government. He also rejected most forms of US-backed financial support in order to seek an independent economic development strategy, which ended up yielding positive results. So, if the US government were to acknowledge that a coup occurred, there would be little in the way of foreign aid to cancel.

But in a flouting of the spirit of the law, the USAID administrator for Latin America met with Government Minister Arturo Murillo of the coup regime in December and expressed an “interest in supporting our country,” as Murillo put it. Karen Longaric, Bolivia’s new chancellor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the coup government (which lacks a proper mandate to serve in an interim capacity, not to mention to make policy changes) said that Añez hopes to reverse course on US-Bolivian relations and bring the country back into the US sphere of influence. The US is again supporting a regime that emerged from a military coup, through various forms of assistance.

The purpose of the coup provision is to provide real consequences for the perpetrators of undemocratic coups, putting a concrete financial cost on attempts to undermine elections and elected governments around the world. When the State Department ignores the law by continuing to provide aid after a coup, it is signaling that it values its own set of strategic objectives over democracy and human rights. The case of Bolivia rewards the overthrow of an elected government that disagreed with the United States government. Lawmakers should demand this be officially identified as a military coup and begin exploring options to strengthen the coup provision, both through altering the language to include a greater degree of specificity and by reforming the decision-making process to make it independent of political conflicts of interest.

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