MODERATOR: All right. Think we’re close enough to quorum, so you guys have already had one of these before. So now we have – joining us from our Western Hemisphere portfolio, [Senior State Department Official]. This will be on background, attribution to a senior State Department official. He has some remarks up front and then he’ll take some of your questions, okay?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hello, everybody, and hope you’re having a nice afternoon on this rainy Washington Tuesday. I would like to talk a bit about Bolivia, and I do have some opening remarks, and afterwards, of course, we’ll proceed to questions.
Let me first say that this is a really momentous time in Bolivia’s history. Bolivia is at an inflection point. It’s – there’s an election coming up. On May 3rd, the Bolivians go to the polls in what amounts to probably the most important election in the country’s history. After the fraud that marred the October 20th balloting, this is the most important election to the country’s history. It has to go right.
And what’s at stake is this: This is a chance for Bolivians to put in place a diverse, inclusive, just, fair country, prosperous as well, that respects the rule of law. That’s what Bolivians want and that’s a chance to actually do this. That’s why it’s just so important.
After the fraud-marred elections on October 20th, the Bolivian people stood up and demanded that their vote be respected. They were justifiable in objecting to the deterioration of Bolivia’s democratic institutions under the previous government. President Morales – ex-President Morales resigned on November 10th and he left the country to go to Mexico after a dozen of his own supporters, ministers, deputies, senators, et cetera resigned. He also lost support of the largest labor organization in the country and that was in many ways the motivating factor behind his departure. After that, Bolivia remained under civilian control at all times and a succession took place in line with the constitutional provisions.
There is a transitional government in place. It’s headed by Transitional President Jeanine Anez. They have worked out a calendar – electoral calendar in conjunction with the legislative assembly, the Bolivians’ congress. That congress actually is controlled, both chambers, by the MAS party – the former government party but now the opposition party. So what happened was the country’s new leaders sat down and figured out a way forward. New elections will take place, first round, on May 3rd. If a second round is necessary – and I can get into the provisions as to why there would be a second round or not – that would be on June 14th and the inauguration would be on July 22nd, possibly delayed till August 6th depending upon who won.
What is the U.S. Government doing? Well, we’re working with the international community – our partners in the EU, the UN, the OAS – to help ensure free, fair, and transparent elections that would help bolster democracy. All Bolivians need to come together to support the upcoming elections and refrain from violence to make sure that they go well. I very much hope that that will happen.
The United States wants a positive relationship with the new government of Bolivia, whatever government that is put in place. Under Secretary David Hale visited La Paz in January, and on January 21st announced our intent to return ambassador – to an ambassador relationship – relationship at the ambassador level with Bolivia. This is after 14 years of antagonism under the Morales government, so whatever government that is put in place, we do hope to exchange ambassadors. I think that would be bilateral as well.
We’re talking with the Bolivian government – the transitional government right now on medium and long-term initiatives that could be put in place after a new government is sworn in. In addition, there’s some short-term measures we hope to take that would benefit Bolivia as well.
Again, just to summarize, this is an important time for Bolivia. It needs the support of the international community. And the United States with our partners – the EU, the UN, other Western countries – that’s what we’re working to do. Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah. So recognizing that we’re still, what, two months away? Two months or a month?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it’s 68 days or so.
QUESTION: Okay. Well —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That may be —
QUESTION: But who’s counting?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Give a day or two. Every day is a miracle.
QUESTION: You’re not really paying close attention, are you? (Laughter.) I mean, how do things look? Recognizing that we’re still two months away, what – does it look like the ground has been prepared for an election that will meet the free, fair, and credible standard?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The body that’s actually responsible for organizing, holding, and conducting elections is the Tribunal Superior Electoral. In English, the acronym is TSE. The president of the TSE was chosen by Anez and the members were chosen by the Bolivian congress. Again, a MAS – Morales party – MAS-dominated congress. They worked well together, but to organize an election in a short span of time like 120 days is difficult. But they’ve had an immense amount of technical assistance from the UN. We’re chipping in as well through partners. The EU is there as well.
But the problem is this: In order to run the election – I’m sorry I’m going on, but you need to do certain things at certain times. So for publicity, public communications, that has to be done. For printing of ballots, that has to be done by X date, and Y date doesn’t really help because it has to be done by X date. Distribution of the ballots, the transportation systems, that’s all logistical.
Now, for the prior election, the TSE, the electoral body had two years to prepare. This one, 120 days. The system was – you can rely upon the old system, but that’s the challenge right now.
QUESTION: But is that the big – that’s the biggest red flag right now, is that they might not be logistically capable of —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Or as the president at the TSE says, one way or the other they’ll be ready, but it’s a challenge.
MODERATOR: Okay, (inaudible).
QUESTION: But haven’t a lot of the potential candidates either been arrested or disqualified, up to 30 percent, I believe, which when we – we hear in this building a lot – just last week – when Iran does that, there is a blanket condemnation of those kinds of election preparations, when Venezuela does something similar? So why should we not judge Bolivia by those standards? And are you – is the American Government delivering a certain message to the sitting authorities now in Bolivia that they need to – what is the message to them to make this more fair?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There are two parts to this answer. One is that there are certain requisites to be a candidate, and several parties – not necessarily the major parties – submitted a slate of congressional, senate candidates – and I’ll talk about presidential later – where they didn’t fulfill the requisites. I mean, you need to have X, Y, Z there, and they may have had X or X and Y. So under the rule of law, if they don’t have X, Y, and Z and the law requires X, Y, and Z, then they need to be disqualified. But that was more for several minor parties.
I think the larger issue is the presidential race, and – actually the presidential race and then Morales, who submitted a candidacy for the senatorship of Cochabamba, and ex-Foreign Minister Pary, who submitted a candidateship for senatorship – candidacy for the senate of Potosi, two different departments. So objections were lodged against both Morales and Pary – P-a-r-y – for the candidacy because they didn’t live in the district, and the Bolivian constitution specifies that you need to have lived in your district for two years. In the case of president, you need to have lived in the country for two years; in the case of senator, you would need to have lived in that senator department for two years.
So four main candidates were challenged. One was an opposition candidate who was living in the United States, so she was disqualified. Another was another opposition candidate who was, again, either living in the United States or out of the country. He was easily disqualified. When I say “opposition,” I mean former opposition, government-aligned. So there would be MAS and then there’d be opposition, but —
QUESTION: But these were MAS candidates or these were —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The two that were —
QUESTION: That were disqualified were MAS?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. The two were what we call the former opposition, but we don’t have a name for it, so we just call them former opposition. But now they’re aligned with the government.
So the two that were MAS were Morales, who is now living in Argentina and before that was living in Mexico, so he was disqualified; and Pary – former Foreign Minister Pary – he was disqualified because he lived in the United States for seven years, came back and lived in Bolivia for one year, and then voted in La Paz but his district would have been Cochabamba. So all this seems to have been in line with – reasonable decisions in line with the governing electoral law.
QUESTION: So you’re saying the disqualifications are reasonable and should not raise suspicions in a public that’s going to be suspicious about it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I could have said that all a little bit quicker if I just simply said – yes.
QUESTION: Sorry. We’re journalists, and you’re a diplomat.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They were based upon reasons, yes.
MODERATOR: Who’s next? Jenny.
QUESTION: Do you think Morales has any chance of coming back? Is he still popular at all? Does he still have some sort of base of support, or are people moving on?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think there’s two aspects to that question. Does – first is does Morales have a chance to come back. The other is does the MAS have a chance to come back. The MAS – I’ll do the second first. The MAS has a candidate, Luis Arce, for president, and for vice president, David Choquehuanca. Arce is the former economy minister for MAS. Choquehuanca is the former foreign minister – another former foreign minister for MAS.
In the most recent polling, they had – in order to win the presidency, you need to have – in the first round, you need to have a 40 percent vote – valid vote – 40 percent of the valid vote and a 10 percent margin over the nearest competitor. So 40 to 29 wins it for you; 40 to 31 doesn’t. In the most recent two polls, it became clear that Arce and Choquehuanca, the two MAS candidates, have a good chance of perhaps reaching 40 percent. The – but the question is would they have a 10 percent margin over their nearest competitor. So yes, the MAS does have a chance. It – I don’t want to qualify whether it’s a good chance or a significant chance, but yeah, they have a chance in a free and fair election.
Now for Morales, he’s disqualified from that election for electoral fraud on October 20th. So he cannot come back for another five years. At this point, I don’t – can’t speculate as to whether he remains in Argentina or not, but the MAS has a chance. Morales is out of the country, and at this point only he knows his future plans.
QUESTION: What’s your assessment of how the interim government has been performing? Are they a disappointment?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sorry. I didn’t hear that first one.
QUESTION: What is your assessment of how the interim government has been performing? Do you – would you consider the fact that they’ve gone back on some of their promises, like not to run for office, not to make major changes – is that a disappointment?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t use that characterization. On November 10th, former President Morales resigned, and through a – the vice president resigned as well. The – going through the list of constitutional succession, the president of the senate resigned. The second – first vice president of the senate resigned, and the head of the lower house resigned. That left in the constitutional succession the second vice president of the senate, which was Jeanine Anez, the current head of the transitional government.
So before November 10th, she had no idea she might even be president. She was sworn in November 12th. There were some security incidents. I think she had to go into hiding. The cabinet was sworn in I think on the 12th or the 14th. Many of them hadn’t even met each other before. But what they were able to do is come to an agreement with the new MAS leaders of the senate and the chamber of deputies, come to an agreement on an electoral calendar to help pacify the country, settle people down. That was a really brilliant, big achievement. They set an election date. They agreed upon an electoral body. For a government that’s a transitional government, that was their main function and they’ve done it.
Now, the country still needs to be governed in the meantime until the May elections, and there’s been a debate back and forth as to the bounds of what the transitional government should do. But the fact that they’ve done job one of setting an electoral calendar and putting that in place I think is an incredible achievement. And it was done peacefully.
MODERATOR: Yes, Kim.
QUESTION: Hi. Kim Dozier from TIME. I apologize if you addressed this in your remarks. But I’m wondering from your position how is Latin America positioned for a coronavirus outbreak?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t talk about Latin America, but I can talk about Bolivia. Bolivia has not had any coronavirus cases. What it has had, unfortunately, is a severe outbreak of Dengue fever. And Bolivia’s geography is such that in the highlands of La Paz, you don’t have mosquitoes because they can’t survive at that altitude. But in the eastern lowlands of Santa Cruz, a city of two million people, it’s tropical and there is a violent, virulent Dengue outbreak, and a number of people have died. I think it’s in the 20s and 30s, but it may be underestimated because some cases of Dengue are asymptomatic.
So, so far, even though there’s substantial international travel back and forth between Asia, or for that matter to the United States and the rest of South America, the coronavirus has not appeared. So when people talk about corona, we go back and talk about Dengue, which is a danger.
QUESTION: But I’m just wondering how – if the health system is hit with a sweeping pandemic of some sort, are they – do they have the resources to combat it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it would be difficult for any country to combat it, including ours. But I’m not a health professional.
QUESTION: What do you think about —
MODERATOR: Excuse me, who are you?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) from foreign press – AFP.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.
QUESTION: I’d like to know how you see Jeanine Anez as a future – as a candidate. What does the United States think about her running for president?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: She’s done a good job as a transitional president, and I think, based upon – again, we have an election date. There’s peace in the country and the country’s moving forward. Now, I’m not going to evaluate different candidates simply because I’m an American, and that’s something for Bolivians to do. But —
QUESTION: She said that she wasn’t running. That’s why – she changed afterwards.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: She initially said that she was not going to run. She has subsequently decided to run. That’s her decision. But again, we don’t support or oppose any candidate. It’s – the importance of democracy is that those governed decide. And so I’m not going to opine as to her merits versus some other candidate. We’ll work with other – whatever Bolivian government that is elected on May 3rd or June 14th and sworn in later.
MODERATOR: Okay. Humeyra.
QUESTION: Hi, and I’m sorry if you mentioned this before, but I just wanted to ask you about Chinese interest in the lithium industry. They had signed a deal, but that was last year, and we’ve had an – I’m from Reuters – we’ve had an interview with the state-owned company, and they said they’re looking at various options, various partnerships. Is this – and that the Chinese partnership was being reassessed. Is this a point of concern for U.S.? And if it is, what are you doing to counter that Chinese influence there? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Chinese deal is one deal that was signed under the previous Morales government. Yet another was done – signed with the Germans.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Morales government signed a deal with the Germans then renounced it prior to the election in the wake of protests in the department of Potosi. The Chinese deal, I think, is simply – has to do with one region in the vast Salar de Uyuni, the Uyuni Salt Flats. But in many ways, at least in my point of view, what’s more important is the German deal, which is still up in the air, unclear. Because the Germans would provide the technology to take Bolivia’s lithium pods, which have a fair amount of moisture content, take out the moisture content and make them more easily refined, similar to the lower moisture contents of the lithium deposits of Argentina and Chile. Bolivia has mass lithium reserves. It just – the moisture makes it a technological challenge. That’s why the German deal, in many ways, is more important than the Chinese deal.
QUESTION: So in a way, the German deal is something you guys actually support or encourage or would like to happen? Is that what you mean?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We would support the idea of Bolivia having the technology to exploit its lithium reserves.
QUESTION: Yeah. And them doing a deal with China, would that like worry you? Or —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t believe China actually has – I think it’s an apple and an orange, because the Chinese technology is – the Chinese deal is not based upon a technology transfer.
QUESTION: Right, it’s just extraction.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.
QUESTION: And so that —
QUESTION: Oh, okay, that’s why – the German one is better for the U.S., I guess, the German deal’s better. It makes – it’s aligned with what you were saying before about —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTNET OFFICIAL: I believe that like a deal with a U.S. firm is always better for the U.S., but Bolivia in the end needs technology.
MODERATOR: Okay, one or two more.
QUESTION: I just have a question about the meetings here in Washington, what the mood is in this – as a lot of people come back, I mean, there’s a lot of acting positions right now at the State Department, including in your bureau. Is that having any effect on your work? The administration keeps cutting the budget for foreign affairs by large amounts each year. Is that having an impact?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me put it this way: I’m just speaking for WHA bureau, and I’ve worked in the department for 35 years, but the people I work with in WHA who deal with Bolivia I’ve known for either two or three decades – maybe two. So – and I’ve worked with them before. And so we work well together, and it’s based upon a back and forth of trust. There’s no micromanagement. At the same time, we report back. So from my point of view, things are working well.
MODERATOR: Great. One more. Yeah.
QUESTION: From what I understand, Morales maintains a level of influence, even from his position in Argentina, in the MAS candidates. Are you concerned at all that the candidates would not be acting on their own but really at his behest?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m glad you touched upon that. What we’re seeing within the MAS is actually a division. And there are various names as to the two sides, but one camp is the Morales-dominated Argentina camp, where he has some of his former ministers there, and they make decisions about what will happen in faraway Bolivia from Buenos Aires. The other camp is composed of former MAS parliamentarians, many of whom – or when they were in congress, never even got a chance to speak to Evo. They simply had to take orders as to what he did. That was the party structure.
They’re embarking upon an independent moving saying decisions should be made in Bolivia and by Bolivians. And that is a quite interesting, I think, development. And so we’re seeing a range of viewpoints within the MAS as to how the party should move forward, and that benefits democracy. It benefits democracy within the MAS; it benefits democracy within Bolivia.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.