The Organization of American States Is Eroding Faith in Democracy
Experts at MIT recently concluded that there is no statistical evidence of fraud in the results of the Bolivian presidential elections last October. These findings debunk an earlier report by the Organization of American States (OAS), which were used to justify a right-wing coup d’etat in the Andean nation.
“All in all, the OAS’ statistical analysis and conclusions would appear deeply flawed,” the researchers, John Curiel and Jack R. Williams of the Election Data and Science Lab, wrote in the Washington Post. They added that the incumbent, Evo Morales, very likely garnered more than the 10 percent margin needed to avoid a second round vote.
The announcement has caused an international uproar.
The OAS mission’s report alleging “intentional manipulation” to favor Morales’ re-election led to an insurrection by the Bolivian armed forces and ultra right parties, as well as violent conflict in the streets. To date, an interim government headed by a minor member of parliament, Jeanine Añez, remains in power. Scores of pro-Morales protesters were killed in the mayhem that ensued after the regional organization called into question the legitimacy of the electoral process and ignited the chain of events that led to the coup.
As it turns out, Bolivia isn’t the only election where the OAS has played a role in steering results, rather than monitoring and assuring democratic practice.
An analysis of recent election observation missions and statements by Secretary General Luis Almagro reveals a disturbing pattern of bias and a willingness to manipulate events and data for political purposes. More broadly, the Secretary General’s revival of Cold War ideology and allegiance to the Trump administration has created a pattern that consistently favors right-wing governments and forces, while attacking or attempting to eliminate the left in power.
This behavior in a regional forum founded to resolve controversy poses a serious threat to democratic practice as well as the self-determination of nations.
The actions of the OAS Electoral Mission in Bolivia, headed by the Costa Rican Manuel González Sanz, triggered a break with the democratic order, leading not only to the coup but the subsequent killings of pro-Morales protesters by security forces, who specifically targeted indigenous supporters of the nation’s first indigenous president.
Indeed, the OAS accusations of “manipulation” in the Bolivian presidential elections catalyzed violent protests and unleashed massive human rights violations. As if awaiting a cue, armed right-wing forces mobilized to overthrow the elected government. The president and vice president, along with other high-level elected officials of the ruling MAS party, were forced to flee when their houses were set on fire and they came under attack.
Just hours after the polls closed, the OAS mission issued a press release before the vote count was finished, followed up two days later by a preliminary report calling into question Morales’ lead of just over 10 percent. The report cited a “hard to explain” pause in the rapid count and other criticisms of the process.
Based on the report, right-wing forces that had hoped to gain power by forcing Morales into a second round of voting, protested. They were joined by some social organizations, staging demonstrations as well as burning buildings. When the armed forces stepped in threatening a coup, Morales resigned to avoid further bloodshed. A government of ultra-right-wing political figures took power, unleashing the attacks on indigenous peoples and Morales supporters.
An earlier analysis of the OAS reports by the Center for Economic and Policy Research showed that the mission provided no proof of fraud, and that the timing and accusations of the report played a critical political role in the subsequent chain of events. On February 27, the study by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab concluded:
“The OAS’s claim that the stopping of the TREP [Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Results] during the Bolivian election produced an oddity in the voting trend is contradicted by the data. While there was a break in the reporting of votes, the substance of those later-reporting votes could be determined prior to the break. Therefore, we cannot find results that would lead us to the same conclusion as the OAS. We find it is very likely that Morales won the required 10 percentage point margin to win in the first round of the election on October 20, 2019.”
By using its electoral mission to rashly question official elections results, the OAS report contributed to mob violence and the fall of the elected government. The openly racist and misogynist rightwing forces that came to power carried out at least one documented massacre of indigenous peoples.
When national and international voices protested the Bolivian coup d’etat, the OAS Secretary General retorted: “Yes, there was a coup in Bolivia on October 20, when Evo Morales committed electoral fraud” — an unsubstantiated assertion that did not express a consensus view within the organization nor even reflect the language of the mission.
Following publication of the expert analysis, the OAS wrote a letter to the Washington Post, complaining that the study “is not honest, fact-based, or exhaustive.” However, the organization has not presented a full scientific rebuttal or specific reasons for its assertion. In view of the doubts and the dire impact, the Mexican government has demanded an explanation from the OAS. Neither the OAS leadership nor the mission have responded to the request.
There are reports that the OAS followed the political dictates of the U.S. government in precipitating the Bolivian coup. The Los Angeles Times reported:
“Carlos Trujillo, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, had steered the group’s election-monitoring team to report widespread fraud and pushed the Trump administration to support the ouster of Morales. (The State Department denied Trujillo exercised undue influence on the report and said it respects the autonomy of the OAS. Trujillo, through a spokesman, declined a request for an interview.)”
The OAS’s lack of transparency regarding its mission to Bolivia has compounded suspicions. Unlike other election observations, all of which should be included in the OAS public database, the 2019 Bolivia mission does not appear at all. The OAS press office has not responded to numerous queries regarding the omission of the data on the Bolivian mission, including the names of the members and other pertinent information.
The November 2017 presidential elections in Honduras provide another example of the OAS’s political agenda. That year, right-wing incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernandez ran despite a ban on his seeking re-election, which was suspended by a highly questionable court ruling that declared the constitution itself unconstitutional.
On election night, after announcing that the opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla had established an “irreversible” lead, the Electoral Tribunal shut down the vote count and later returned to announce the incumbent’s unlikely victory amid massive disbelief. The OAS mission questioned the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, known as JOH by his initials, and announced the elections too dirty to call. Almagro called for new elections.
By contrast, the Trump administration immediately endorsed the Honduran Electoral Tribunal’s position and congratulated Orlando Herndandez on his supposed victory, while pressuring allies to do the same. Following the U.S. lead, Almagro eventually backed down from his insistence on new elections and accepted the incumbent government.
The Hondurans administration brutally repressed widespread popular protests following the election, leaving more than 30 opposition demonstrators dead. While the direct blame lies with the Honduran government, the OAS’s inability to assure or restore clean elections, and its compliance with U.S. policy causing it to reverse its original position, contributed to the breakdown of rule of law in the country.
Today the political crisis continues to claim lives and forces thousands of Hondurans to emigrate every month.
OAS actions in the Dominican Republic’s botched local elections on February 20 again reveal its bias.
The OAS pressured the island government to adopt an automated voting system that went bonkers on polling day. When Dominicans tried to vote, the names of certain candidates did not appear on the screens in nearly half the precincts. The OAS Electoral Observation Mission promised to study the failure, but to date has not been able to identify the technical problem, which it was its job to avoid, or explain why it didn’t catch it earlier.
The Elections Board suspended the elections just hours after the polls opened and rescheduled them for March. Although local elections may seem minor, they are the forerunner to presidential elections in May and the results affect the campaigns. Dominicans are marching to demand the resignation of the Elections Board and call for fair elections, amid claims of fraud and sabotage.
Contrary to its actions in Bolivia, after the Dominican elections fiasco, the OAS mission did not immediately release a destabilizing report alleging manipulation. Instead, it supported the Elections Board’s decision to reschedule elections and scrap the U.S.-based automated system, which cost the island a reported $80 million between equipment and the aborted elections.
Faced with a major breakdown in the system in the Dominican Republic, the OAS mission and its Secretary General did not point fingers, stating prudently: “To date there is no evidence to indicate a willful misuse of the electronic instruments designed for automated voting.”
Despite the obvious discrepancy between the two cases, however, the OAS’s press release used the opportunity to defend its Bolivia mission, promising to apply “the same standards of technical quality and professional rigor as the process that was recently carried out in Bolivia” — leading some Dominicans to note on Twitter that the comparison was not reassuring.
Commentators have blamed the OAS in part for the breakdown in the Dominican system. In New York City, Dominican immigrants demonstrated in front of OAS headquarters against the “elections disaster” and called for to respect the vote. U.S. Congressman Adriano Epaillat demanded that the head of the Elections Board resign. But the scores of OAS observers working on-site in the country before, during, and after the events, have discreetly not criticized the government or explained what went wrong.
Protestors insist that the system failure favors the ruling Dominican Liberation Party by buying them an extra month. The ruling party’s presidential candidate trails in polls for the May elections. President Danilo Medina has a close relationship with the U.S. government — he met with Trump and four other leaders of Caribbean nations at Mar-a-Lago March 21, 2019 to consolidate support for Trump administration policies to remove Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro from office and support Almagro’s OAS re-election bid, apparently in return for investments in their nations.
Almagro is invested in the results of elections in the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) holds 14 of the 34 votes in the OAS.
The small island nation of Dominica recently denounced Almagro’s interference in its own December 6 elections. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who has publicly rejected “interference in the internal affairs of any country” — including Venezuela — won reelection handily.
But just days before the voting, Almagro tweeted support for opposition demands, as demonstrations by anti-Skerrit forces grew violent. Dominica’s foreign minister, Francine Baron, said to the OAS: “We are concerned by public pronouncements that have been made by the Secretary General, which display bias, disregard for the governments of member states, and call into question his role and the organization’s role as an honest broker.”
Democracy at Stake
Speaking in Mexico in August 2019, Almagro stated that if the public does not trust election results, it severely affects the quality of a democracy. However, his partisan role and the biased and dishonest actions of OAS election observation missions have severely undermined democracy in the region.
The region faces major challenges in the near future: 2020 presidential elections in Bolivia and the Dominican Republic, an upcoming Chilean constitutional referendum, and 2021 key presidential elections in Nicaragua, Peru, and Ecuador. These elections could either resolve or enflame political crises.
Impartial election observation by qualified experts can instill trust in the electoral process, expose corrupt and anti-democratic practices, and head off post-electoral conflicts. The region urgently needs an organization that is willing and able to play this role professionally — and not act in favor of other regional interests and powers.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .