Another ‘big lie’: Brought to you by the Organization of American States

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After the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the “big lie” of mass election fraud undermined faith in our democracy, wasted taxpayer funds in states across the country, sowed skepticism in the rule of law, and fueled violence and loss of life, most notably during the Jan. 6 riot. Over the past several weeks, the hearings of the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack have cemented just how systemic and far-reaching the attempted coup really was. 

Remarkably, efforts to overturn presidential election results based on false claims of electoral fraud have not been unique to the United States in this era. Just a year prior, in Bolivia, unfounded claims of fraud following a national election were spread by an unlikely source: the leadership of the Organization of American States (OAS), which had been invited to observe the election. 

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and other senior officials at the organization falsely alleged fraud in the 2019 Bolivian national elections, lending fuel and legitimacy to deadly insurrectionary violence. Less than a month after the vote, a military-backed coup ejected the elected government and installed Sen. Jeanine Áñez as president. The unelected Áñez regime would go on to rule the country for a year — committing mass human rights violations and targeting indigenous communities, labor organizers, journalists, and any and all critics of state power. As in the Jan. 6 attack in the United States, white supremacist and other extremist far-right organizations were at the core of the violence that exploded in the weeks leading up to the coup in Bolivia — and in its aftermath. 

Just like in the U.S., the election fraud claims in Bolivia centered around changes in the reporting of election results. In Bolivia, early results showed the incumbent, Evo Morales, with a roughly eight percent lead over his nearest competitor — a clear victory, yet not above the 10 points needed to avoid a second-round runoff vote. By the next day, the trend had shifted, and Morales had surpassed the necessary threshold for a first-round victory. What happened?  

The answer is as simple as with the 2020 U.S. vote — in which Democratic voters across key battleground states overwhelmingly cast mail-in ballots, which were reported later than in-person votes. Bolivia’s rural areas, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of Morales, had their votes counted later, on average, than votes from urban centers, which favored his competitors. Once those rural votes were counted, the trend changed, and Morales secured victory.  

The OAS and Almagro decried this development as “inexplicable” and as having “drastically modifie[d] the fate of the election and generate[d] a loss of confidence in the electoral process.” Rather than fulfilling the OAS’ role as a neutral observer, organization officials fanned the flames of conflict — with attacks from the regime’s state security forces resulting in at least 30 deaths. 

As members of Congress, we have pushed to hold the OAS leadership accountable for its perpetuation of the big lie about the Bolivian election. Our colleagues agree. The omnibus budget we passed in March, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, requires Secretary of State Antony Blinken to issue a report within 120 days evaluating OAS officials’ false claims in light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary from independent experts.  

Congress was forced to take this unprecedented step because OAS officials refused to respond to or even acknowledge our repeated attempts to ask basic questions about their claims. The OAS’s lack of constructive engagement hasn’t been limited to members of Congress: After the New York Times and the Washington Post published articles relying on studies by scholars from MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Tulane to refute the OAS’s claims, Almagro simply moved on to other allegations of fraud in a 100-plus page “audit” of the election released a month after the coup. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the organization that first documented the flawed statistical analysis of the OAS, has noted, the audit’s claim that evidence existed of an “intentional manipulation” of the vote count is as unfounded as the initial big lie of an “inexplicable” change in trend.  

The language Congress passed requires the State Department to consult with independent experts and produce a report regarding the “legitimacy and transparency” of Bolivia’s 2019 elections and, specifically, the OAS’ role. It also requires reporting on the “progress in investigations of responsibility for violations of human rights that occurred” in the coup’s aftermath.  

As the Independent Group of International Experts (GIEI, by its Spanish initials) backed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has documented, extrajudicial executions and at least two massacres were perpetrated by security forces in the wake of the 2019 coup. The GIEI has offered important recommendations on steps that must be taken to achieve some measure of justice and reparations for the families of the victims of these abuses.  

Our message is simple: now is the time for truth and accountability. The State Department’s responsibility is clear: set aside political pressure, fairly evaluate the findings of credible outside experts, and ensure that the subversion of Bolivian democracy is not met with continued silence and impunity. 

Schakowsky represents the 9th District of Illinois. Susan Wild represents the 7th District of Pennsylvania and she is a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Tags Evo Morales Luis Almagro

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