Amid Repression and Scrutiny of the OAS, Bolivia Staggers Toward an Election Rerun

Jun 26, 2020

By Linda Farthing 

When preliminary results in Bolivia’s election last October showed that longtime President Evo Morales had narrowly won a controversial fourth term in office, it provoked a national outcry. The tabulation of the vote count, which initially showed a dead heat, had been halted on Election Day, only to resume a day later with Morales having jumped into the lead. The Organization of American States quickly issued a statement denouncing the “inexplicable change” in results that “drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process.”

Violent mass protests then erupted, fueled in part by the allegations of vote-rigging. Weeks later, after security forces sided with the protesters, Morales resigned and fled the country at the “suggestion” of the military.

An independent team of researchers recently analyzed data obtained by The New York Times from Bolivian electoral authorities, and found serious flaws in the OAS’ analysis. “We took a hard look at the OAS’ statistical evidence and found problems with their methods,” Francisco Rodriguez, an economist at Tulane University who participated in the study, told the Times. The OAS has pushed back against these criticisms, claiming the recent report was part of a “malicious campaign of disinformation.”

The new findings pertain only to the OAS’ statistical audit of the results and do not prove that the election was in fact free and fair, but they still raise questions about the OAS’ impartiality. They also could have implications for Bolivia’s current interim government, led by Jeanine Anez. She and other opponents of Morales had insisted for months prior to the elections that fraud was inevitable, and the OAS’ announcement provided corroboration. Morales was running for a fourth term in violation of the country’s constitution and after losing a 2016 referendum on whether he could run again, so tensions were high even before Election Day.

After Morales resigned along with several top officials, right-wing elements of the opposition pushed Anez, then serving as second vice president of the Senate, into the power vacuum. Her appointment as interim president was approved at a legislative session boycotted by Morales’ party, the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS.

Once installed, Anez’s government used lethal force to quell protests by Morales supporters, while investigating hundreds of former officials and MAS members. She also issued a presidential decree that effectively granted security forces complete immunity for any actions they took while suppressing the protests. All told, 36 people died and more than 800 were injured in the unrest that unfolded following the Oct. 20 election. Many officials and MAS supporters who worked under Morales fled the country.

“I felt fear like I never had before,” one former government functionary, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, told me. “I was terrified that the only way to stay out of jail was to leave, even though it meant I had to leave my small children behind.”

Even now, seven former top MAS officials remain stuck in the Mexican Embassy in La Paz, where they sought asylum in early December. Mexico has protested vociferously that Bolivia is violating international law by not permitting them to leave. The diplomatic kerfuffle resulted in the Anez government expelling the Mexican ambassador and two Spanish Embassy officials at the end of December.

Anez did move early and forcefully against the coronavirus pandemic, which won her international praise. Despite only allowing Bolivians to leave their homes for essential purposes one morning a week, in a country with the world’s largest informal economy, a survey found that 63 percent of the population approved of the job she was doing against COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, her approval rating was below 20 percent.

“The government is criminalizing social leaders. If they are linked to Evo Morales, they are often detained.”

However, in March, Anez issued a presidential decree containing a provision that allowed the government to impose criminal penalties on anyone who criticized the government’s response to the coronavirus. Human Rights Watch called the decree “overly broad.” In the weeks after it was issued, 67 people were arrested, 37 of whom were sentenced to prison terms for vague crimes like “destabilization,” “disinformation” and “virtual warfare.”

Observers say the measure is being used to disproportionately target MAS supporters. “The government is criminalizing social leaders,” Fernando Molina, a Bolivian author and journalist, told me. “If they are linked to Evo Morales, they are often detained.”

Even some staunch opponents of Morales are alarmed. Almost 50 journalists from varying political stripes recently wrote a joint statement criticizing the interim government for the arrest of a pro-MAS commentator named Mauricio Jara, whom the government accused of “misinforming the population.” The signatories argued that regardless of whether they agree with Jara’s views, they saw his arrest as part of a “worrying trend” of extrajudicial detentions. “I believe freedom of expression and opinion is crucial to keeping democracy,” one of the signatories, Juan Cristobal Soruco, the former editor of the Cochabamba-based daily Los Tiempos, said in an interview.

All of this would appear to go beyond the remit of Anez’s caretaker government. The new elections that she was supposed to oversee on May 3 have now been postponed until Sept. 6, due to the pandemic. But the move has rattled the MAS, which fears the interim government’s extended mandate will give it more time to hound them. “This government was charged with nothing more than organizing elections,” said Kathryn Ledebur, a Bolivia-based activist with the Andean Information Network, a human rights group. “Then they were supposed to leave office.”

While the MAS’ sense of urgency about holding elections is understandable given the persecution it faces, Bolivia remains in the grip of the coronavirus, with the number of cases still trending upward. This puts the party in a quandary: If elections are held too soon, the virus could explode, overwhelming the country’s limited health care infrastructure. It also lacks the capacity for widespread mail-in voting. Ensuring fair elections with the participation of international observers will be impossible. But the longer they are delayed, the more Anez and her allies strengthen their grip on power.

The MAS remains the most popular political force in the country. In the latest public poll, conducted in mid-March, MAS’ presidential candidate, Luis Arce, led by just over 33 percent of the vote, followed by Carlos Mesa, a centrist former president who also ran against Morales last year, with 18 percent. Anez, who decided to run in January after initially promising she wouldn’t, was at 16 percent.

Distrust of the Anez government runs particularly high in the areas that suffered massacres during the so-called “pacification” process—the term Anez uses for the November crackdown. Morales’ stronghold is in the coca-growing Chapare region, east of Cochabamba. In addition to being the country’s first Indigenous president, Morales himself was a coca farmer, so his election was a point of pride for residents in this area. Now, the interim interior minister, Arturo Murillo, calls peasant coca farmers drug traffickers and terrorists. “The government repression against us, particularly those of us in leadership positions, is constant,” Leonardo Loza, the vice president of the coca growers’ federation in Chapare, told me.

In mid-April, the government cut off supplies of gasoline to Chapare for two weeks, arguing the move was necessary to limit the manufacture of cocaine paste, which requires gasoline. But the fuel shortage left farmers unable to operate the aeration pumps for fish ponds that had been developed as an alternative to growing coca.

With still months to go before the rescheduled election, residents of Chapare remain fearful of what further steps the government might take against them. And when Election Day rolls around, they will join many other Bolivian voters in distrusting the OAS’ pronouncements about the legitimacy of the vote.

The post about “Amid Repression and Scrutiny of the OAS, Bolivia Staggers Toward an Election Rerun" first appeared on the World Politics Review website.

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