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How the OAS, and the Media’s Lack of Scrutiny, Caused a Violent Coup in Bolivia

As often happens when an elite-driven coup leads to US-endorsed regime change, there are powerful attempts to disguise its real character. A recurrent method is to blame the coup on its victim. Of this, the November 10, 2019 coup in Bolivia is a textbook example. The narrative went as follows. Bolivian president Evo Morales, eager to perpetuate himself in power, orchestrated a fraudulent election. His people saw this as deceitful and authoritarian. A popular uprising ensued, eventually leading to Morales’s resignation and exile.

How such a storyline could have prospered, despite the absence of any solid evidence regarding election rigging, raises questions about the media and its role. It also sounds the alarm as to the part played by the institution that generated this narrative in the first place: The Organization of American States (OAS).

On October 21, the day after Bolivia’s presidential elections, the OAS Mission of Electoral Observers in Bolivia issued a press release expressing “its deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls”. Two days later, the mission’s preliminary report reiterated this claim and expressed its concern that the quick count “had been interrupted.” The OAS report called for a second round of voting, in contrast to the official results that put Morales on 47.07 percent and afforded him the 10 point lead he needed over his closest contender Carlos Mesa, on 36.51 percent, to avoid a runoff.

The OAS recommendation was startling. The electoral results were in line with what many polls had predicted. And they coincided with the parliamentary elections, held on the same day, in which the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales’s political party, had secured a majority in both houses of the assembly.

The OAS’s attack on the validity of the results relied almost exclusively on its focus on the “interruption” on election night of the quick count: the nonofficial count carried out by a private firm to give the media and the general public some preliminary information on the electoral results.

Incidentally, Bolivia’s electoral authorities had previously announced that the quick count would only include 80 percent of tally sheets. Given that it was halted at 83.85 percent, there were in fact no legal grounds on which to question this decision. But more importantly, the binding, official count was never stopped. Yet, all around the world, newsrooms claimed, falsely, that the “vote count” had been interrupted.

As for the OAS’s argument on the “change of trend,” this too was a serious mistake. A paper I have coauthored on the Bolivian elections clearly demonstrates that “the overall trends in the results (…) are easily explainable and consistent with the fact that later-reporting rural areas heavily favor the MAS.” There was, contrary to the OAS’s assertion, no “change of trend,” merely a steady, continuous increase in Morales’s lead throughout the vote-counting process; an easily projectable result for any statistician, which relied on the simple fact that later-reporting areas were more pro-Morales than earlier-reporting ones.

If the OAS’s argument seemed absurd, it nevertheless served the interests of a broad anti-Morales offensive. On October 24, the US ambassador to the OAS led the charge: “Before the TREP [quick count] was suspended the results indicated the need for a second round of elections. After the TREP was reactivated, almost 24 hours later, lo and behold no second round is needed and Evo Morales is firmly ahead in the vote count!” he exclaimed. And thus, with the active support of the US, the flawed narrative was given more impetus.

Despite the weakness of the OAS’s position, these suspicions of electoral wrongdoing had a decisive effect on the escalation and radicalization of the protests against Morales in Bolivia. Seeking to appease, Morales called for an international audit of the elections. So the OAS returned to Bolivia with a new team of experts and, on November 10, issued a preliminary audit report.

The audit was a foregone conclusion. Much of it focused again on the quick count and repeated some of the statistical blunders of the mission’s preliminary report. A second part shifted the line of fire to new terrain. The audit spoke of “irregularities,” even if it remained vague as to their exact nature and provided no evidence, or the tally sheets with problems.

The audit report essentially became a long list of denunciations, its sole purpose being to justify the mission’s earlier report with as many irregularities as possible, regardless of scale and impact. The fraud narrative had become so prevalent that it was too late for the OAS to contradict its earlier conclusions. This, in turn, would have drawn some scrutiny on its practices and possibly awoken ghosts from the past ― the OAS’s problematic role in the 2011 Haitian elections comes to mind.

US pressures were also on. Washington had waited for the right moment to settle its accounts with Morales for his expulsion of the US ambassador in 2008, among many other grievances during 13 years of frosty relations. And OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who has not always enjoyed unwavering support from the State Department, desperately needs US backing for his 2020 reelection bid. From his point of view, there was no turning back on the OAS’s position.

How a global narrative of fraud should have emerged from the OAS’s bizarre attack on a quick vote count that is not legally binding and on late-reporting votes naturally favoring a candidate over another, is quite incredible. Yet that is exactly what happened. In this world of post-truth politics, a false media narrative based on the OAS’s flawed statistics was instrumental in overthrowing a democratically elected government. Now Bolivia faces the consequences.

Guillaume Long is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net) and previously held several cabinet positions in the government of Ecuador, including Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Culture, and Minister of Knowledge and Human Talent.

This essay first appeared on OpenDemocracy.

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