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The British ambassador who supported a coup

  • Two weeks before coup, British ambassador gave shelter at his residence to Edgar Villegas, an anti-Morales computer engineer claiming fraud in the October 2019 election won by Morales. Villegas was conducting research for an international report later used to justify the overthrow of the government
  • Ambassador sent diplomatic car to pick up Villegas in Bolivia’s capital La Paz after contacting his sister to offer “solidarity” over his election claims
  • UK Foreign Office tells Declassified: “It is ludicrous to infer that anything improper took place”
  • Glekin called for street activists opposed to overthrown President Evo Morales to “follow me please” on Twitter the week after the new regime massacred unarmed protesters
  • British embassy hosted a fancy dress Downton Abbey-themed party three weeks after the new regime gunned down 10 protesters

On 20 October 2019, there was a presidential election in the South American country of Bolivia. As results came in, it showed a narrow victory for the incumbent Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party.

But the following day, the Organisation of American States (OAS), a grouping of North and South American countries, released a preliminary statement claiming irregularities in the vote and pointing to fraud.

This unleashed three weeks of protests which, upon publication of the final OAS report in November, led to the head of the Bolivian army calling on the democratically elected president to step down. To avoid violence, President Morales acceded to the military’s demands.

On 12 November, brandishing a huge leather-bound Bible, Jeanine Añez, a senator from the northeastern department of Beni, declared herself “interim president”.

“The Bible has returned to the government palace,” she said.

Añez, a representative of Bolivia’s right-wing movement, which is often deeply racist, had previously called indigenous rituals “satanic”, saying “nobody can replace God”. She had also called Morales, who comes from the country’s indigenous community, a “poor Indian”.

Britain’s ambassador throughout the coup period was Jeff Glekin, a former deputy head of mission in Colombia who arrived in Bolivia in February 2019. Declassified has found that he had a direct personal role in the October-November 2019 crisis and moved to quickly support the coup regime which eventually took power.

Self-proclaimed ‘interim president’ Jeanine Áñez brandishes a huge leather-bound Bible at Bolivia’s Congress on 12 November 2019 in La Paz, Bolivia. (Photo: Javier Mamani / Getty Images)

Diplomatic car

Glekin did not congratulate MAS on its election victory as the results came in. However, five days after the election, on 25 October 2019, he took to Twitter to deny media reports that an anti-Morales figure had taken refuge in the British embassy in La Paz.

The tweet concerned Edgar Villegas, a computer engineer who had been publicly disputing Morales’ election win. He was involved with a group of computer experts who claimed to have found evidence of manipulation in the election results.

The following day, Glekin posted a follow-up tweet: “Many people are asking me if I have met with Edgar Villegas. As an ambassador I have meetings with many people, and I can confirm that I personally spoke with Mr. Villegas today. He did not request any kind of diplomatic protection.”

However, in mid-December 2020, a month after Morales had fled the country, Villegas “admitted” in an interview with local media that he had “taken refuge” at the ambassador’s residence.

“The first day I was at the residence of the British ambassador, then I was in places that I cannot reveal for security reasons”, Villegas said.

By February 2021, with the coup regime under Jeanine Añez in place for three , Villegas felt more comfortable to elaborate on the story. He did so in an interview with Bolivian paper Página Siete, for whom Glekin has written a column, and which has a strong anti-Morales stance.

Villegas said that after his interview with a Bolivian TV show on 24 October, in which he alleged electoral fraud in the election days before, he started to receive threats on his telephone.

He added he left his mobile phone at the TV station because he was worried about being tracked. On his way home, he said, “a car began to follow us”.

At this point, he said, his sister received a message of solidarity from Jeff Glekin, who had seen the interview and wanted to talk to him. It is not how the British ambassador Villegas’ sister.

That night Villegas took refuge in the house of an acquaintance and the next day a UK diplomatic car picked him up and took him to the British ambassador’s residence, Villegas said.

We understand the British embassy arranged transport for Villegas to attend the meeting with the ambassador because of the protests and blockades in La Paz at the time.

Villegas said he stayed for “a few hours” in the residence, while other people who were helping him began to look for a refuge. Declassified understands that Villegas was not offered British diplomatic protection.

A UK Foreign Office spokesperson told Declassified: “It is right that our ambassadors should meet with experts from a broad range of viewpoints and political persuasions. This meeting was entirely consistent with the UK’s role as a neutral, trusted observer of the country’s 2019 election. It is ludicrous to infer that anything improper took place.”

Edgar Villegas, a computer engineer who publicly alleged fraud in the October 2019 Bolivian election, is interviewed on a local channel. (Photo: Supplied)

While in hiding, Villegas continued investigating the electoral fraud that he claimed Evo Morales had mounted and worked with 12 people. The objective was to present a report to the electoral observation mission of the OAS that had begun an audit of the October elections.

Within days of sending the report to the OAS he was able to leave his place of confinement. “Things had gotten worse for Evo and I felt like I could go home,” he said.

On 10 November, the OAS issued its final report which alleged there had been fraud in the October election, prompting the head of the army to call for Morales to give up power. “First I felt so much joy and then satisfaction,” Villegas said.

When Evo Morales stepped down as president, “my joy was greater”, Villegas added. He later exclaimed: “When Evo quit, it was the happiest day of my life.”

Declassified previously revealed that the British embassy itself also provided data for the OAS’s report. A later study by independent researchers using data obtained by the New York Times from the Bolivian electoral authorities found that the OAS statistical analysis was flawed.

In June 2020, the OAS defended its discredited report by citing “the research carried out by Edgar Villegas in Bolivia… whose conclusions also coincide with those of the OAS team”.

Villegas concluded his interview with Página Siete with a warning: “We have to continue taking care of democracy… Evo is only one piece, behind are the Castro-Chavista regime and the Sao Paulo Forum.” The São Paulo Forum is an annual conference of left-wing political groups from Latin America.

Backing the dictator

After denying that he took Villegas under British protection, Glekin’s next tweet was on 13 November, after Añez had been installed as “interim president” following the removal of Morales.

Glekin wrote: “The United Kingdom congratulates @JeanineAnez for assuming her new responsibilities as Acting President of #Bolivia. We welcome the appointment of Ms. Añez and her stated intention to hold new elections soon.”

He added: “Free and fair elections will rebuild trust in democracy. We hope that all political parties will support the efforts to restore calm after the recent violence and to organise new presidential elections, in accordance with the Constitution.”

Añez herself made a statement saying: “I thank the Government of the United Kingdom for recognising my government. Our commitment to the Bolivian people will be unwavering to pacify our nation and carry out free and fair elections as soon as possible.”

The day after Glekin tweeted his support for the new military-backed government, the Áñez regime forced through Decree 4078 which gave immunity to the military for any actions taken in “the defence of society and maintenance of public order”.

The following day, on 15 November, military forces shot and killed eight protesters in the city of Sacaba in central Bolivia. Four days later, regime forces killed another 10 protesters in the neighbourhood of Senkata just outside the capital La Paz.

Neither Glekin nor the UK embassy in La Paz made any public comments on the massacres.

However, six days after the killings in Senkata, on 25 November, Glekin spoke to Karen Longaric, who had been appointed foreign minister in the new unelected regime. He tweeted: “It was a pleasure talking with the Chancellor @KarenLongaric and committing a diplomatic mission from the United Kingdom to accompany the new elections in #Bolivia.”

One of Longaric’s first acts as minister was to pledge support for the self-declared “president” of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, who had been controversially recognised by Britain and several other Western countries in 2019.

Then, on 28 November, Glekin was even more brazen about his support for the new regime. He wrote on Twitter: “Hello #pititatwittera I am the British Ambassador to #Bolivia. Follow me please”, with a grinning face emoji.

Pititas is what protesters opposed to Evo Morales called themselves before the coup of November 2019. Pita means “string” or “washing line” and the protesters’ signature tactic was to block roads with washing lines during their protests.

Relatives cry next to the coffins during the funeral of people killed by the coup regime’s security forces in Senkata, at San Antonio de Asis Church on 20 November 2019 in El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia. (Photo: Gaston Brito Miserocchi / Getty Images)

Creamy tea

Glekin’s silence on the lethal violence being unleashed by the regime continued. He found time, on 5 December, however, to post a thread on Twitter detailing, “How to make a perfect English cup of tea”, which included the advice: “If you use milk, use the least creamy type.”

The following day, he posted a follow up: “I have to confess something. After all this tea talk. Currently, I prefer coffee. The flat white is my favourite.”

On 10 December, International Human Rights Day, the UK embassy in Bolivia said it “reiterates the UK’s commitment to upholding and strengthening human rights around the world”. But it would never denounce the massacres carried out by the new regime.

In November, the UN had by contrast denounced the “repressive actions by the [Bolivian] authorities”, which “will simply stoke that anger even further and are likely to jeopardise any possible avenue for dialogue”.

The day after International Human Rights Day, on 11 December, Glekin posted “some of my favourite places to eat in Santa Cruz”, a city that was the centre of opposition to the Morales government. The post included pictures of a number of dishes, including a succulent steak. It was hashtagged #gastrodiplomacy.

The New York Times has written: “It is no surprise that many Bolivian supporters of Mr Morales view Santa Cruz as a redoubt of racism and elitism.” It added: “This city remains a bastion of openly xenophobic groups like the Bolivian Socialist Falange, whose hand-in-air salute draws inspiration from the fascist Falange of the late Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco.”

On the same day Glekin was posting his favourite Santa Cruz food, Teen published an article entitled “Indigenous Peoples Are Under Attack in Bolivia After Evo Morales’ Departure”.

Days later, on 14 December, and three weeks after the Senkata massacre, Glekin hosted a fancy dress Downton Abbey-themed English tea party at the British embassy. Victoria sponge cake was served.

While Glekin had still made no comment about repression by the new regime, he did, however, take to Twitter on 20 December to share a “statement from the British Foreign Ministry on intimidation against members of the National Assembly in Venezuela”.

In a September 2020 interview, with the coup regime still in place, Glekin noted that “Bolivia has aligned itself in the recent past with countries such as Venezuela. This has changed and we look forward to a more productive dialogue with Bolivia on foreign policy and trade”.

Asked what his proudest moment as ambassador had been, Glekin said: “I was extremely proud of the embassy’s work in monitoring last October’s elections and supporting democracy and a peaceful transition following the social conflict that ensued from the flawed democratic process.”

Jeff Glekin, UK ambassador to Bolivia, hosts a fancy dress Downton Abbey-themed English tea party at the British embassy, on 14 December 2019, three weeks after regime forces gunned down 10 unarmed protesters. Anonymisation by Declassified. (Photo: Jeff Glekin / Twitter)

Lithium

As 2020 got underway with the coup regime in power, Glekin quickly moved to promote British opportunities regarding Bolivia’s huge deposits of lithium, a metal in increasing international demand due to its use in the burgeoning electric car industry.

This was the latest stage in a long effort by the British embassy to court the Bolivian authorities on the issue of lithium. But the UK embassy in La Paz clearly believed the new regime held out better opportunities for engagement on the issue.

In March 2020, four after the coup, Glekin met with Gunnar Valda, the regime’s executive manager at YLB, the -owned lithium company.

According to the company, Glekin “expressed his willingness to provide support through projects managed by British government for research, training, and innovation” in lithium production.

Valda, meanwhile, “invited a representative of the British embassy to sign an agreement and deepen discussion of the scope and objectives of the support provided by the British government” to the lithium company.

Bernando Fernández, commercial manager at the UK embassy, said the embassy was financing a lithium exploration and exploitation project worth up to £5,000, and that Satellite Applications Catapult, a UK-based company part-funded by the British government, was putting £105,000 into the project.

The UK embassy was budgeting another £15,000 to help create a lithium “standard”, or quality norm.

Glekin was also promoting the London Metal Exchange, the world centre of industrial metals trading. “What we are saying is to invite the [Bolivian lithium company] to visit London, to get to know the market”, Glekin told them.

The YLB added: “This initiative in the medium term could help the commercialisation of lithium through the market, and not through bilateral agreements as it is now.”

Jeff Glekin (middle), UK ambassador to Bolivia, meets officials from the Bolivian regime’s -owned lithium company, March 2020. (Photo: YLB)

‘Easier to enter the market’

In April 2020, five after the coup, Glekin gave an interview to the specialist local outlet Energiá Bolivia. The title was: “In Bolivia we have to SPEED UP INVESTMENT IN LITHIUM.”

The publication asked him if England has lithium interventions planned in Bolivia. “As a country, a lot depends on the private sector and the conditions to invest in Bolivia,” he replied. “It is not easy to invest in lithium… a lot depends on the government and these processes of bringing more foreign investment to Bolivia.”

He continued: “With the London Metal Exchange we are looking for commercial opportunities for lithium”. He added, “I see a lot of opportunities for lithium but also many challenges.”

Britain had a particular interest in lithium’s use in batteries. “We are also planning a factory in Britain, as part of our industrial strategy in battery development and technology since, in fact, the battery was invented in Oxford,” Glekin said, adding that the UK wanted “to continue working on battery technology and we want to compete with the United States, Japan, Germany and China in this area”.

Glekin believed that Bolivia was being too slow getting the metal out of the ground, however.

“The future demand is for electric cars and we are only in the first step of this conversion of using electric cars. However, I believe that in a country like Bolivia, times must be speeded up since at the moment no lithium is being produced; everything is under the ground and they can lose the opportunity if the government, the communities and the private and public sector cannot find a point of balance between their interests to continue doing business.

“That is, they will have a lot of potential resources but without realising said potential.”

Jeff Glekin gives a set-piece interview to specialist local outlet Energiá Bolivia to discuss extraction of Bolivia’s lithium deposits, April 2020, five after the coup.

A month before, in an interview with another local media outlet, Glekin said: “There are British companies that are doing a very good job in Bolivia, like Shell, and there are others that are less well known. The potential is .”

He added that things were looking more promising under the coup regime. “Due to the political changes in Bolivia, a more open environment for foreign investment is perceived,” he said, adding: “I believe that this will open new doors to companies that want to share their technology, their products and make alliances.”

Glekin continued: “The previous government was not very in favour of foreign investment. So, with the changes that we are going to see, it will be easier to enter the market and do business.

“The companies to come are from different parts of Britain and from various sectors. They are modern firms that are doing innovative things and want to enter the market and share their services and products in Bolivia.”

He finished: “There will be interest in lithium in the coming years due to the changes in the world. The demand for lithium is growing and Bolivia must take advantage of that opportunity.”

When new elections took place in October 2020, Evo Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo won 55% of the votes against six rivals on the ballot, avoiding the need for a runoff. The runner-up was former president Carlos Mesa with just under 29%.

On 13 March, Jeanine Añez was arrested by the authorities on charges of “terrorism”, “sedition” and “conspiracy” over her role in the November 2019 coup.

The British embassy in La Paz did not respond to a request for comment. DM

Mark Curtis is editor, and Matt Kennard is head of investigations, at Declassified UK, an investigative journalism organisation that covers the UK’s role in the world. 

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