The OAS and the Crises in Bolivia and Chile: Power Politics and Inconsistencies

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Protests in Chile, October 2019

Protests in Chile, October 2019/ Carlos Figueroa/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Protestas_en_Chile_20191022_07.jpg

As political crises emerge one after the other in Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS) is showing inconsistent behavior based on ideological rifts and power politics. This inconsistency – evidenced by the OAS’s role in the ongoing crises in Bolivia and Chile – undermines its mandate to protect human rights and democracy throughout the hemisphere.

In Bolivia, violence spread in the streets of various states after the opposition accused incumbent President Morales of manipulating the results of the October 20 elections. The OAS Electoral Mission reported possible irregularities, and both the Permanent Council and the Secretary General pressed the government to authorize an audit of the electoral procedures and a vote recount. Morales consented to both requests.

  • The same accusations of electoral irregularities were made two years ago in the Honduran presidential election, but a coalition of states headed by the United States swiftly recognized President Hernández – delegitimizing the OAS electoral mission and the Secretary General’s call for new elections. Those same countries have now pressed Morales, first for a recount of votes and later for new elections. When the OAS Electoral Mission confirmed the existence of electoral irregularities on November 10, the Bolivian military withdrew support for the government, prompting Morales’s resignation – an outcome radically different from that in Honduras.
  • Despite political violence and recurrent accusations by Morales of unconstitutional alterations to the constitutional order voiced by the Bolivian foreign minister at the OAS headquarters, neither the Secretary General nor OAS member states invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter. President Morales did not explicitly invoke the Charter, thinking that the crisis would follow the same course as in Honduras, or that the military remained supportive. Either way, he was wrong.

In Chile, in contrast, the police have engaged in systematic violations of human rights since an unprecedented social uprising that started on October 18. Twenty-three people have been killed, 1,950 have been injured, and 180 have suffered eye injuries from rubber bullets fired upon protesters by police – many losing their sight. The Inter- American Commission on Human Rights issued a declaration regarding the violations of human rights during the State of Emergency imposed by President Sebastián Piñera in the aftermath of the uprising. But the OAS political bodies have remained silent.

  • Neither Secretary General Almagro nor the Permanent Council have issued a single declaration of concern or condemnation regarding the situation in Chile. Almagro has refrained from convening the Permanent Council or the General Assembly, but he has loudly claimed the existence of destabilization attempts organized by Cuba and Venezuela (which he called “Bolivarian breezes”). To be sure, issuing such a statement without providing evidence or convening the political bodies of the organization jeopardizes the credibility of the OAS and breeds conspiracy theories. In a recent interview, President Piñera also subscribed to the thesis of foreign intervention in Chile’s protests without providing any evidence. The Chilean Attorney General confirmed that the government has not provided any information about the action of foreign groups.

The inconsistency displayed by the OAS in the handling of the political crises in the region suggests that the OAS applies different standards to similar situations. In fact, the organization is split into two coalitions: a larger and stronger one composed of right-wing governments that embrace or accept the foreign policy of U.S. President Donald Trump based on a revival of the Monroe Doctrine; and a smaller, weaker one composed of states with leftist and centrist governments with an anti-imperialist or a non-interventionist rhetoric.

  • Breaches of democracy and human rights violations exist on both sides of the rift, but the OAS political bodies seem to focus only on the side that happens to be weaker. This is bad news for those that would like to see in the OAS an honest broker and mediator in political crises, no matter the ideological color or the power of the concerned state. If this trend continues, it is also bad news for the protection of human rights and democracy and for multilateralism in the region.

November 11, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Bolivia: Ready to Elect a New President?

By Robert Albro

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking to students in Guarnes, Santa Cruz.

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking in Guarnes, Santa Cruz/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/30N5hOF

President of Bolivia since 2006, Evo Morales faces a number of challenges as elections approach later this month, but his strong record appears to set him up for a fourth term in office. When, in 2016, he lost a national referendum vote to suspend term limits so that he could run again this year, his presidency appeared likely to soon end. But in 2017 the country’s highest court threw out the result, which Morales’s detractors understandably viewed as political manipulation. He resolved to run again, a decision met with accusations of authoritarianism and street protests in the indigenous city of El Alto.

  • The President’s disregard for term limits remains contentious. His popularity has declined from the lofty poll numbers he enjoyed throughout the first half of his presidency. He has endured several personal scandals. His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), suffered some surprising setbacks in recent local elections. And his government has provoked political fights with indigenous groups – a bad sign for a candidate reliant on the support of indigenous voters. Most notorious of the confrontations was the so-called TIPNIS controversy, where the government sought to build a highway through a protected indigenous territory to benefit commerce with Brazil.
  • Last month Bolivia was beset by catastrophic wildfires in the lowlands of Santa Cruz, the worst in decades. The administration was criticized for being slow to act and for anti-environmental policies many insist intensified the fires, which provoked a protest march among lowland indigenous groups.

Normally such missteps might open the door for a rival candidate, but Morales is not a normal president. He is a historically transformative leader responsible for the political enfranchisement of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, and for the economic uplift of a large swath of previously impoverished citizens.

  • Morales’s administration is often glossed as leftist or socialist. But this misunderstands his adroit economic stewardship of Bolivia Inc. The country’s economic growth has averaged 5 percent since Morales entered office, with GDP increasing fourfold and export revenue sixfold, marking an impressive turnaround. Government debt has been reduced, inflation remains low, the minimum wage substantially increased, and – backed by a buildup of massive foreign exchange reserves – the currency kept stable. National control of the energy sector has enabled significant revenue reinvestment in popular social programs, including new infrastructure projects, pension benefits, agricultural subsidies, free universal health insurance, and improvements in education. During this period Bolivia ranks first regionally in reducing extreme poverty, while helping to move approximately 1 million largely indigenous Bolivians into the middle class.

Polls vary, but Morales appears to maintain a comfortable lead. The MAS, which came to power as a coalitional indigenous-popular social movement, has evolved into a well-organized and dominant political party, with greater resources and reach than its rivals, enabling it to consolidate or coopt control of key constituencies. The candidate polling second, Carlos Mesa, has been unable to unify a fractured opposition, and has run on a promise of stability, which Bolivians rightly perceive they already enjoy. Elected vice president in 2002, Mesa came to power a year later when popular protests forced then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to flee the country. Mesa represents a troubled era in Bolivian politics to which most Bolivians do not want to return.

Morales appears poised to win on October 20. But the next five years could be bumpy unless he and the MAS solve several urgent problems. As the region’s prolonged natural resource boom ebbs, Bolivia’s long-term economic stability remains vulnerable, given its lack of economic diversity, dependence on fossil fuels for capital growth, failure to develop new export industries such as lithium, and overreliance on neighboring Argentina and Brazil as commodity markets. Morales’s surprisingly poor environmental record, and extractives-dependent economic development model, are likely to lead to further conflicts with indigenous groups over control of territory and resources, and erode key sources of his and his party’s legitimacy. Moreover, the MAS has yet to offer any clues for how it plans to remain a dynamic national political force after its charismatic leader finally departs the scene.

October 4, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS. He has conducted ethnographic research and published widely on popular and indigenous politics along Bolivia’s urban periphery. Much of that work is presented in his book, Roosters at Midnight: Indigenous Signs and Stigma in Local Bolivian Politics (SAR Press, 2010).