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Congress should investigate OAS actions in Bolivia

By Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), Opinion Contributors
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Donald Trump has shown little affinity for multilateral institutions — from the UN and the global agreements on climate to the World Trade Organization. But there is one organization that his administration has strongly aligned with: the Organization of American States (OAS). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this alliance appears to coincide with something ominous at the OAS.

The OAS provides Electoral Observation Missions for governments who want honest, independent experts to observe their elections. These missions usually reflect and uphold these principles, but at times have bent to political pressure. This occurred in Haiti’s 2000 elections, contributing to a cutoff of international aid that led to a violent coup d’etat; and also in Haiti in 2011, when the OAS arbitrarily changed the election results. Most recently, the OAS played a destructive role in Bolivia, following the country’s Oct. 20 election.

Since the day after the vote, the OAS has helped direct a false narrative that the incumbent president, Evo Morales, and his party, “rigged” or “stole” the election. This narrative contributed to political polarization and violence in Bolivia, a military coup, and today’s uncertainty for the democracy’s future.

Recently, the New York Times reported on a new academic study which concluded that the OAS’ initial claims of fraud “relied on incorrect data and inappropriate statistical techniques.” Researchers from the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the MIT Election Data and Science Lab had already reached broadly similar conclusions over the last six months. 

The Times report noted that these “flawed” OAS claims had “fueled a chain of events that changed the South American nation’s history” and helped “push Mr. Morales from power with military support weeks later.”

The new academic study concurs with the vast majority of experts who have looked at the data, including 133 economists and statisticians who sent a letter to the OAS, similarly challenging their allegations of fraud, on Dec. 2, 2019. The letter has gone unanswered.

The story begins the evening of the election with an interruption in the unofficial and preliminary vote count reporting. At the time of the interruption, with 84 percent of the votes counted, Morales led his second-place opponent, Carlos Mesa, by 7.9 percentage points. When the reporting of these unofficial results resumed 23 hours later, Morales’ lead had increased to 10.1 percentage points. And when the votes were officially counted, Morales finished with a 10.6 percentage point lead. Under election rules, this more than 10-point lead gave Morales a first-round win and prevented a runoff election.

The opposition claimed fraud, and before the votes were completely counted, the OAS backed the opposition, alleging an “inexplicable” and “drastic” trend change that had undermined the legitimacy of the results.

The OAS failed to provide any evidence or rationale for this claim. In reality, Morales’ margin increased for a simple, and relatively common reason: precincts with stronger support for Morales and his party tended to report results later than other precincts.

Although these facts were pointed out to them, the Electoral Observation Mission continued to stand by their initial claims. The secretary general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, stated publicly that he believed it was a fraudulent election. He also repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that the election was “stolen.” Almagro, in his own bid for reelection as secretary general, appeared to be courting the regions’ right-wing governments — including the Trump administration. And, indeed, he received a new five-year mandate in March.

More than six months ago, on Nov. 25, along with Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), we sent a letter to the OAS with basic questions about its statements and findings regarding Bolivia’s election. The OAS failed to respond to these questions. In response to last week’s Times article, an OAS official called their own bogus statistical analysis a “moot point,” and shifted attention to other allegations of fraud. But after having such a massive lie exposed, how can members of Congress possibly continue to take OAS claims at face value?

In fact, what happened was a military coup that ousted Bolivia’s first indigenous president, in a country with the largest percentage of indigenous people in the hemisphere. Since the coup, state security forces, operating with the de facto government’s promise of impunity, perpetrated two massacres — killing at least 18 people,

many of them indigenous. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous organ of the OAS, has denounced an increase in attacks and threats against journalists, and the criminalization and persecution of social leaders and former Morales government officials. New elections are tentatively scheduled for Sept. 6, though there are concerns the unelected, “interim” government will continue to delay.

It is not surprising that the Trump administration has celebrated a return to a non-democratic government where indigenous people are marginalized and excluded. But the Congress of the United States should not tolerate this.

The U.S. Congress provides about 60 percent of the OAS’ funding. It can, and should, investigate the role of the OAS in Bolivia over the past year, and ensure that taxpayers’ dollars do not contribute to the overthrow of democratically elected governments, civil conflict, or human rights violations. Congress should also take appropriate action to hold the Trump administration accountable for any role that it played in the destruction of Bolivia’s democracy.

Schakowsky represents Illinois 9th District and García represent the 4th District of Illinois.