By: Ishaan Tharoor
A year after staging an election mired in controversy, Bolivia may be on the verge of doing it all over again. Following multiple postponements by the country’s caretaker regime, elections are slated for Oct. 18. Current polling shows a clear lead for Socialist presidential candidate Luis Arce over centrist former president Carlos Mesa and a slate of other candidates. If Arce wins at least 40 percent of the vote by a 10 percent margin over his nearest rival, he would avoid the possibility of a runoff.
It would mark a dramatic reversal of political fortunes for the country’s left after long-ruling former president Evo Morales was forced to flee last November. At the time, Morales’s opponents alleged the results of the October 2019 election had been manipulated to deliver him a margin of victory not actually achieved. Their case was buttressed by a report put out by the Organization of American States, an influential hemispheric body headquartered in Washington, that said evidence of electoral irregularities forced them to question “the integrity of the results.”
Mass protests in the country and a police mutiny eventually prompted Morales to bow to pressure and leave for exile, and ushered in an interim government led by right-wing lawmaker Jeanine Áñez. Both liberals and conservatives abroad cheered this ostensible display of people power at the time and scolded those who branded events in Bolivia a “coup” — pointing, instead, to Morales’s earlier refusal to heed the result of a 2016 referendum limiting his terms in power. The White House celebrated the fall of a leftist government. “We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere,” declared President Trump.
But things were perhaps not quite what they seemed. Añez, known to espouse racist, anti-Indigenous views, went on to preside over an interim regime that wheeled viciously against political opponents and Morales supporters. These included myriad reports of police brutality and murders of civilians by security forces. Fresh elections planned for May were deferred multiple times, as the caretaker government floundered in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, setting up blockades in anger over what they perceived as the usurper regime’s bid to cling to power.
Last week, Añez announced that she would drop out of the presidential race — months after breaking a commitment to not run in the first place — to not undermine the right-wing vote. “I’m doing this because of a risk that the vote gets divided between various candidates,” Añez said in a national address placed on social media. “It’s not a sacrifice, it’s an honor.”
Nevertheless, her administration is reeling. “There have been frequent cases of corruption, including the arrest of a health minister in connection with the overpricing of ventilators for the treatment of Covid-19,” wrote Diego von Vacano, a Latin America expert at Texas A&M University. “Moreover, as Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic and Amnesty International have shown, there have been widespread human rights abuses, including restrictions to freedom of speech and excessive use of force, during Añez’s tenure.”
The Trump administration’s lack of focus on the course of events in Bolivia after Morales left was a sign of its broader regional agenda. “Washington’s response — or the lack thereof — reflects what analysts say is the most ideological policy on Latin America by an American administration since the region’s shift toward democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s,” my colleagues reported in March. “Critics say the Trump administration has played down a wave of repression unleashed by Áñez in Bolivia, the killings of left-wing community leaders in Colombia, shootings by police in poor Brazilian neighborhoods, and the alleged drug-trafficking links and human rights abuses of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. All are countries run by conservative, pro-Trump governments.”
Moreover, in the months since Morales’s ouster, separate studies called into question the accuracy of the OAS’s assessment. “The OAS allegations were indeed the main political foundation of the coup, and they continued for months,” wrote Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank in Washington that produced a number of reports rebutting the OAS’s “flawed” statistical analyses.
An official at the OAS declined to comment on the record to Today’s WorldView about the recent complaints but pointed to a June statement the organization put out in response to a separate New York Times story that was critical of the organization’s role in the election. The statement defended the OAS’s actions, derided its critics as leftist propagandists and accused the Times of trying to “deny the Bolivian People the possibility of electing a new president that is not Evo Morales.”
That’s not good enough for some lawmakers in Washington. A letter sent Tuesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress (and shown in advance exclusively to Today’s WorldView) urged the Trump administration “to use its voice at the OAS to advocate for a thorough, independent assessment of the OAS’s statements and reports regarding Bolivia’s 2019 elections,” not least because the OAS draws much of its funding from the United States and is also “poised to make a determination of the freedom, fairness, and integrity of the upcoming elections.”
The letter’s principal signatories included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.).
“The Organization of American States’ decision last year to declare Bolivia’s election fraudulent on the basis of questionable evidence helped fuel a crisis of democracy and human rights that Bolivians are experiencing to this day,” Sanders told Today’s WorldView. “Bolivia’s post-coup government carried out racist violence against indigenous people, imprisoned activists, and threatened political opponents.”
“What more than two dozen of my colleagues and I are demanding is that the United States government take responsibility for what is done with our taxpayer dollars and wield oversight over the OAS,” Sanders added. “Securing accountability and transparency from the OAS is vital to a free and fair election in Bolivia next month.”
Away from Washington, the stakes are even higher. “Bolivia faces a grave sociopolitical crisis, which puts the country at a crossroads,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, in a statement earlier this summer. “The nation’s only viable means of emerging from this crisis is to put the human rights of all its people at the center of its response. Otherwise, the population, especially historically marginalized groups, are condemned to spiraling violence and continuing violations of their rights.”