The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The OAS helped undermine, not restore, democracy in Bolivia

Former president of Bolivia Evo Morales speaks in Buenos Aires on Feb. 21. (Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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It is difficult to imagine that Evo Morales would have left office when and how he did — in a civic-military coup — if the Organization of American States had not found that Bolivia’s Oct. 20 election was fraudulent. To be sure, the OAS did not single-handedly bring down Morales. In the weeks before the coup, Morales faced large protests and a devastating police mutiny.

The protests did not focus solely on the election. Many were upset Morales was allowed to run at all after losing a 2016 referendum asking voters to approve his bid to seek a fourth term. The police mutiny centered on officers’ disgruntlement over pay and being asked to contain the protests. And the Bolivian right had declared that Morales could win the October election only through fraud for months before the vote, i.e., well before the OAS stepped into the fray.

Yet, the OAS actions were undoubtedly important in creating a climate within which a coup could not only succeed, but be applauded as a necessary step toward restoring Bolivian democracy, as the U.S. government and mainstream media did. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Following Morales’s ouster, Bolivia has come under the control of a right-wing authoritarian regime that has killed dozens of unarmed protesters, detained hundreds, blocked international human rights investigators, systematically repressed political opponents, threatened journalists and media outlets, embraced racism, and enacted a far-right agenda for which it has no electoral mandate nor constitutional legitimacy.

The question of whether the OAS was justified in declaring the October election fraudulent looms large. In a recent article published in The Post, John Curiel and Jack R. Williams, researchers with MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, conclude the answer is no. Curiel and Williams used statistical analysis to analyze a central claim made by the OAS — initially in an Oct. 21, 2019, news release — that there was a “drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results” following an election-night suspension of the unofficial rapid vote count. According to the OAS, this is one of numerous pieces of evidence showing fraud. Curiel and Williams unequivocally reject this, writing: “As specialists in election integrity, we find that the statistical evidence does not support the claim of fraud in Bolivia’s October election.”

Curiel and Williams’s findings corroborate those of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which has forcefully challenged the OAS’s charge of fraud since it was made. Curiel and Williams were, in fact, contracted by CEPR to test the organization’s own statistical findings that the OAS failed to prove fraud, though there is no reason to think CEPR influenced the MIT researchers. The OAS responded to Curiel and Williams by defending its work, including its statistical analysis. The OAS also took Curiel and Williams to task for not engaging with the non-statistical claims made in the OAS’s final report on election.

Does the OAS have a leg to stand on? A careful reading of the evidence shows that the answer is no. The OAS is entirely unjustified in its declarations that it has proved the existence of fraud and intentional manipulation of the vote. To be clear: this does not mean CEPR and Curiel and Williams have proven the Oct. 20 election was clean. Yet they have convincingly shown that the OAS’s claim of fraud is unsubstantiated. Through independent statistical analyses, CEPR and Curiel and Williams both show that there was not a drastic or hard-to-explain change in the voting trend. The increase in Morales’s vote over time can be explained based on his receiving higher support in votes counted late in the process. And it is not surprising that this would be the case, as Morales tended to do well in rural and poorer urban areas that typically are slower to report voting results.

It’s clear that the OAS acted in an unjustified and reckless manner in Bolivia, helping to undermine, not restore, democracy. Why would an organization publicly committed to upholding democracy do this? The words and actions of OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro provide a clue.

Instead of condemning Bolivia’s flagrant human-rights abuses and antidemocratic practices, Almagro recognized its de facto regime. Almagro has also made alarming, Trump-esque statements about Venezuela. In September of 2018, Almagro said, “With respect to a military intervention to overthrow Nicolás Maduro’s regime, I don’t think any option should be ruled out.” This makes it difficult to avoid the following conclusion: under Almagro, the OAS has shed any pretense of being a neutral arbiter of democracy and human rights, and has instead become an all-but-open servant of the Trump administration and some of Latin America’s most far-right political actors.

Read more:

Álvaro Vargas Llosa: The Bolivian ‘coup’ that wasn’t

Gustavo Flores-Macías: Latin America’s generals, back in the political labyrinth

Gabriel Hetland: Bolivia is falling into the grips of a brutal right-wing regime

Francisco Toro: Bolivia needs a political solution out of this messy coup