October 18, 2020
Today, nearly one year after Evo Morales was ousted in a coup facilitated by the Organization of American States (OAS), Bolivia will finally vote in new elections. With Luis Arce, the candidate of Morales’s Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS) party leading in polls, the OAS and the right-wing opposition are laying the groundwork to yet again claim fraud and reject the results.
To understand the threat from the OAS and its accomplices, it’s first necessary to rewind to last year.
On October 20, 2019, Bolivia held presidential and parliamentary elections, with then president Evo Morales seeking a fourth term. The next day, the OAS, which oversaw an observation mission for the elections, issued a press release “express[ing] its deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results.” The OAS did not provide any evidence for its claims. Protests erupted in a country that was already polarized.
Later, Morales — who had won the contest in the first round based on the official tally — agreed to a binding audit of the election results, carried out by the OAS, to avoid an escalation in violence. On November 10, the OAS released those results, reiterating its statistical claims (which could not be replicated) and detailing technical and procedural problems with the election that are present in virtually every electoral system (while failing to demonstrate how these were exploited by any actor). Nonetheless, Morales immediately agreed to new elections. Then, on November 10, after the military “suggested” he step down, Morales resigned in an attempt to prevent further violence against his supporters and their families.
I’m omitting some context: for example, how and why Bolivia is so polarized (Morales’s pro-indigenous, pro-poor policies inflamed traditional elites); the fact that many, including some of his supporters, thought that Morales shouldn’t have run for a fourth term (although, importantly, Luis Almagro, the head of the OAS, defended his right to do so); the fact that many in the opposition — including some of those running in the election — said they wouldn’t respect the results if Morales prevailed; and finally, how the electoral authorities could have been more transparent about why they interrupted the system for reporting preliminary results.
But the basic story is this: a popular politician, from Bolivia’s most popular party, beat the runner-up by more than ten percentage points and then entrusted supposedly neutral observers to manage a crisis. Yet the OAS was not neutral — in fact, they lied in insisting that fraud had taken place.
The OAS has a history of negating the results of democratic elections, and it knew what it was doing in Bolivia. So did Carlos Trujillo, the US ambassador to the OAS, who “steered the [OAS]’s election-monitoring team to report widespread fraud and pushed the Trump administration to support the ouster of Morales,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Morales’s foes got what they wanted.
When an election observer sets in motion a coup and provides no evidence for its claims of electoral fraud, the media and the international community should be asking questions. They should have noted, in the case of Bolivia, that preelection polls generally matched the final tally, that the legislative results were similar to the presidential results, and that the OAS never released actual corroboration for what it was claiming. Instead — despite the fact that the OAS’s claims were immediately refuted by numerous researchers — the media busied itself debating whether what had happened was a putsch, while promoting the narrative, for months, that Morales had engaged in massive fraud. They had their villain, Morales, and their victor, the oppressed Bolivian people — which, strangely enough, still seemed to support the ousted president in polls.
As for the OAS, it first ignored the people questioning its work and then repeatedly lashed out. It took until February 2020 for the organization to publicly address objections from researchers, and even then it did not respond to any of their substantive claims, nor did it put out any data or code. After additional researchers objected to their analysis, OAS secretary-general Almagro released a 3,200-plus-word Trump-esque screed attacking journalists and researchers for engaging in a campaign of “disinformation.” Almagro accused the New York Times of sympathizing with “totalitarianism” for eighty years — even downplaying their reporting of Nazi concentration camps — as an explanation for why they ran an article on June 7 examining the OAS allegations of fraud in Bolivia.
When the OAS finally released the data and code — ten months after the election — it had a critical coding error that made its analysis worthless. (In a similar way, various other independent analyses attempting to support the fraud narrative quickly fall apart.)
The OAS is charged with observing elections in the hemisphere. Yet in Bolivia, it’s gotten away with what should be criminal malpractice.
The context for today’s election is unfortunately very similar. Preelection polling suggests a comparable level of uncertainty on election night, with Luis Arce, the candidate from Morales’s party, close to a first-round win over Carlos Mesa, who lost in the first round to Morales in 2019. The OAS is again observing the elections, and Manuel González, the former foreign minister of Costa Rica, is again head of the Electoral Observation Mission.
In other ways, the situation is even worse for Bolivian democracy. De facto president Jeanine Áñez — a candidate herself until recently, when she withdrew due to low support — has presided over a shameful campaign of political persecution and human rights violations, including massacres by security forces, that seriously jeopardize her government’s standing to conduct elections. OAS head Luis Almagro is signaling that the OAS is unlikely to view an Arce victory in the first round as legitimate, and Mesa is claiming that he could win in the first round himself, supposedly based on internal polls. More frighteningly, nearly a year of Áñez’s government has emboldened the anti-Morales opposition, which in the aftermath of the 2019 election violently targeted Morales’s supporters and indigenous people.
There are some bright spots going into today’s election. MAS is the most popular political party in the country despite Áñez’s repression, and is more prepared than in 2019 to deal with right-wing tactics in a close election. To counter perhaps unreliable data from the government or anti-MAS activists, the party will collect its own data via its network of poll watchers. Those outside the country are also watching much more closely than in 2019, with some already raising the alarm that less data will be released on election day — data that was instrumental in countering the OAS’s false claims in 2019. There will be more independent observers this time, including from Progressive International, the Argentine government, and CODEPINK (although some have been directly threatened by members of the de facto government or prevented entry before the election).
But none of these things, however good, solve the problem that the OAS is a political actor — funded largely with US money and increasingly aligned with the Trump administration’s foreign policy — whose electoral observation cannot be trusted in the least. It makes sense then that US legislators have also been watching more closely, especially Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Jesús “Chuy” García, who have called for an investigation into the OAS’s actions in 2019. With perhaps a change in the administration in the United States in November, along with persistent pressure from researchers and activists, an investigation could be integral into reforming the OAS, defunding it, or separating the electoral observation and human rights monitoring — also subject to political interference — more completely from the leadership of the organization.
Yet for the time being, every claim the OAS or the government makes must be examined critically. And in the future, the OAS cannot be allowed to sabotage democracy and help install right-wing, pro-United States governments.
In that sense, it’s important to remember what Bolivia lost. Evo Morales was the first indigenous president in a country with the largest indigenous population in the Americas. They benefited disproportionately from the poverty reduction, public investment, and other reforms his government enacted. In response, a white and mestizo elite with overtly racist leaders grew increasingly hostile, not because they were repressed, but because they were no longer the only people the government served. So they launched a coup, reversing much of the progress that had been won.
Over the last year, Bolivian workers and indigenous people have refused to accept this slide into authoritarianism. They have demonstrated and struck against the coup government to insist that elections be held. Now, the future of democracy in Bolivia may depend on whether the OAS, too, can be held in check.