Manufacturing Legitimacy

The Organization of American States and the Bolivian Election of 2019

June 21, 2021

In the wake of the Peruvian elections in which Marxist Pedro Castillo just defeated right-wing contender Keiko Fujimori, our collective memory must not ignore the controversial role of the Organization of American States (OAS) in undermining popular socialist movements in the Americas. This case is clear in Bolivia’s elections of 2019, in which OAS intervention led to a violent and repressive coup d’état, forcing incumbent Evo Morales into exile, and otherwise causing egregious harm to the Bolivian people and their democracy.

Revisiting the role of the OAS in the coup in Bolivia draws attention to a largely U.S. taxpayer supported institution that lurks in the background, pretending to uphold human rights and democracy. Yet, as the case of Bolivia shows, the OAS leadership of Luis Almagro is in part responsible for the deadly coup, as well as its ongoing consequences The particulars of the 2019 Bolivian elections and its aftermath demonstrates how the OAS, like a NATO of the south, mobilizes ‘member nations’ as a commissioned agency of U.S. interests in Latin America, too often at the expense of actual democracy and sovereignty in the region.

The OAS Behind the Scenes

Created in 1948 as the successor to the much older Conference of American States series of summits, the OAS primarily exists as the official mediating body for member states’ conflicts and to investigate various issues within their borders.  One of the organization’s founding documents, the Rio Treaty of 1947 establishes an agreement akin to NATO where all member states agree to coordinated defense of an attacked member. This was a key addendum for the United States at the beginning of the Cold War. The Council on Foreign Relations openly admitted to hoping that the OAS would act as a buffer against communism gaining ground in the Americas. This Cold War prerogative remains present within the organization, as evidenced in the key role it plays in undermining left-leaning elected leaders in the hemisphere.

This was the case in late October 2019 when a narrow win by incumbent Bolivian president Evo Morales and his party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) was overturned by a false report issued by the OAS that sought to delegitimize the results. On election night exit polls showed Morales just under the 10% lead that would ensure his victory without a runoff election. At around 7 pm, there was a pause in the last 5% of the ballot count. When updates resumed, Morales had pulled ahead of the nearest contender just enough over a 10% margin to win the presidency outright. Opponents seized on the moment to accuse Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo party of tampering with the ballots. One of the most prominent accusations came from an observation team sent by the OAS that, within 48 hours, released a formal statement demanding a second round of voting– regardless of whether or not Morales reached a 10% margin lead.

Rather than upholding what would have been a regulation-required runoff, however, the OAS intervention opened an opportunity for the opposition to escalate.

Their reasoning was that the statistical projections calculated by the OAS observation team showed that it would be impossible for the last 5% of ballots to push Morales ahead for a definitive win. While several reputable analysts showed that the push ahead for Morales was consistent with previous election patterns, these reports were ignored. In the spring of 2020, a definitive report was published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) followed by another data analysis published in the fall, both demonstrating that the OAS claims of fraud were false. Yet, in the midst of mounting protests by opposition to Morales in the days following the election, including paramilitary violence, Morales ultimately acceded to a runoff election. Rather than upholding what would have been a regulation-required runoff, however, the OAS intervention opened an opportunity for the opposition to escalate. Just days later, under significant duress, violence, and the defection of the military, Morales was forced to flee the country. Officials following Morales were assaulted, imprisoned, and their houses burned by opposition militia.

With Morales gone, second vice president of the Senate Jeanine Añez installed herself as interim president, an office whose sole charge was to preside over another general election. Añez would end up serving for a year, repeatedly postponing the election, and outright rejecting a mandate by the Assembly to hold new elections within 90 days. Later, when it was already clear that the elections would not take place, Añez remained in office with claims that it was impossible for a transition to take place due to COVID concerns. In November 2019, a Harvard Law survey cited a thirty day period under Añez as containing the second most civilian deaths at the hands of the state since Bolivia became a democracy four decades earlier.

Two days after assuming office on November 14, 2019 Añez issued a decree giving carte blanche protection to state forces wounding and killing protestors. This remained in place for two weeks as federal troops and police used live ammunition on pro-Morales protestors, killing three dozen and wounding hundreds. With this decree, the coup enabled a campaign of violence with paramilitary groups assassinating MAS leadership and civilians including massacres of Morales supporters. Armed men kidnapped Patricia Arce, mayor of Vinto, cutting her hair, drenching her in red paint, and parading her through the streets while they demanded that she renounce support of Morales. Twenty-three civilians would be killed by state forces and 210 more injured before the start of December.

Meanwhile, the White House issued a statement “[applauding] the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution.” Upholding the OAS, and ignoring analysis that showed that Morales’ lead was in fact legitimate, on December 9th, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a report stating that “[t]he United States commends the professional work of the Organization of American States (OAS) electoral audit mission in Bolivia” insisting again that election irregularities warranted the intervention. Perhaps to appear even-handed, the OAS issued a statement denouncing the violence, and yet never apologized for nor acknowledged their role in instigating the conflict.

A Larger View of Accountability

Finally in October 2020 the long-awaited elections were held. Luis Arce, the MAS party candidate, and a former minister under Morales, won handily, and in early November took office without issue. After months of unchecked violence, it appeared this episode in Bolivian history would soon be forgotten and there would be no recompense for the people brutalized by the Añez regime.

Then, on Saturday March 13, 2021, Añez was arrested and charged with acts of sedition, terrorism, and conspiracy. The former president was jailed pending trial, as were some of her interim ministers. That same day Añez’ verified Twitter account put out a statement calling for the UN and OAS to send observers to Bolivia in response to her arrest, claiming the country was becoming a dictatorship. Despite her role in enabling the extrajudicial killings of pro-Morales protestors, the OAS was quick to defend Añez effectively allowing her to escape culpability for her actions and those of her administration.

Within 48 hours the OAS released a statement expressing concern over the prosecution of coup leaders. The statement cites judicial impartiality in the courts “due to structural problems and, in particular, its composition.” Further the OAS cites “the cancellation or dismissal of different trials against MAS supporters” as proof of partisan misconduct, a position based on the assumption that MAS supporters who were rounded up and incarcerated during the interim government were correctly charged. Evidently, to the member states of the OAS, prosecution for crimes committed while in office is condemnable factionalism while the imprisonment of your opponent’s voters is not. Rather than seeking amends for the wrongful seizure of power and state sponsored terrorism in the country under Añez, the statement further outlined the recommendation that Morales’ government be investigated for “corruption.” The statement of the OAS effectively became a second intervention serving to undermine the judicial process and stage impunity for the violence committed under Añez.

Yet how Añez and her ilk were capable of doing such violence in the first place must be centered to ensure there are none like her in the future. From the moment she took office, President Añez signaled to her supporters that the new government would tolerate and encourage bigotry and violence towards MAS’s largely indigenous base and their traditional practices. Acts of individual violence and hate speech towards indigenous Bolivians during this period were so rampant that even mainstream American media took notice.

For those who opposed the coup government, and those witnessing the present-day electoral victories of the left in Latin America, there is reason to carefully watch the actions of the OAS in the coming months.

On November 10, former far right presidential candidate and vocal Añez supporter Luis Fernando Camacho posted a photo on Facebook posing with a Bible and Bolivian flag on a seal on the floor of the senate (the flag likely being a not-so-subtle jab at Morales, who often used the Wiphala flag representing the indigenous groups of the region), with the caption “God has returned to the palace.” A group of police were later recorded cutting the Wiphala from their uniforms and cheering outside the government palace. These would be the same people firing on crowds of indigenous protestors in the coming weeks. Two days later, Añez would reaffirm Camacho’s sentiment nearly verbatim when she posed with a giant leatherbound Bible, stating “the bible has returned to the government palace.” Both comments can be interpreted as rebukes of the constitution ratified during the Morales administration which guarantees freedom for indigenous religious practices. Combined with concerns over her all-white cabinet in a country with a large and politically mobilized indigenous population, it is clear that Añez was intentionally removing indigenous elements from the federal government.

For those who opposed the coup government, and those witnessing the present-day electoral victories of the left in Latin America, there is reason to carefully watch the actions of the OAS in the coming months. OAS president Luis Almagro has already declared concern over the prosecution of Añez and her ministers. To date, Commander Jorge Mendieta has been arrested for his role in deposing Morales, and there are warrants out for the arrest of fellow coup commanders Sergio Orellana and William Kaliman, and National Police ex-commander Yuri Calderón (the latter two mentioned were trained at the School of the Americas). There have yet to be any arrests of individual officers who committed homicide.

Añez was certainly a convenient tool for removing Morales, but the extent to which the OAS will bail her out of the current call for accountability within Bolivia is yet to be determined. According to reports, Añez herself has already asserted that she has presidential immunity. What is clear is that the OAS, the United States, and Añez engage in a kind of interplay, immediately responding with actions that enable and ultimately manufacture legitimacy for one another even in the aftermath of their mutual failures. It is therefore crucially imperative that the joint nature of their responsibility for the violence be identified and that both are held accountable.

This forward-looking concern is important because this is not the first time the OAS has run interference for a coup government. In fact, the pattern goes much further back. The well-known events of September 1973 in which General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the popular leftist President Salvador Allende of Chile is a case in point. Less well known than Pinochet’s infamous imprisonment and torture of political prisoners is that for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organization within the OAS, his actions only warranted two memos reminding him to adhere to OAS human rights agreements.

In 1974 they would send an observation team to the country, however, after obtaining testimony from prisoners that they were beaten, electrocuted, sexually abused, and more, the OAS failed to threaten any consequences for the Pinochet government. What’s more, that same team refused to condemn the coup in their report, as doing so would amount to a political stance and would thus be inappropriate for a “nonpartisan” third party. While this makes sense for an organization “none of whose provisions authorizes it to intervene in matters that are within the internal jurisdiction of the Member States,” this rule simply does not apply when dealing with left leaning governments.

One clear reason for the OAS taking such a hard stance against the prosecution of Añez in Bolivia is that the judicial process will inevitably bring into question how the coup government was able to seize power in the first place, and the answer would invariably implicate actions by the OAS. The false and defamatory claims made on October 23 legitimized the conspiracies of the far-right opposition and helped them gain power.

To account for the harm done to Bolivians, the OAS must be brought to justice. Jeanine Añez was president for a year without earning a single vote. Thousands of Bolivians were persecuted, injured, or murdered as a result. The very basis of the investigation in Bolivia today calls for full accountability of all parties. What we learn from this case makes it increasingly clear that the OAS seeks to protect its underlying political agenda as the institutional pilaster of U.S. interests, which is consistently willing to undermine democracy while operating under the guise and mandate of the opposite.

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