In Bolivia, the truth wins out

Francesca Emanuele reports on recent attacks on Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism – and how the country’s voters were ultimately undeterred by disinformation tactics

January 22, 2021 · 9 min read
Graffiti supporting MAS (Francoise Gaujour/ CC2.0)

On 18 October 2020, the left returned to power in Bolivia in an election won overwhelmingly by Luis Arce, the candidate of Evo Morales’ party, MAS (Movement for Socialism). The victory put an end to the right-wing de facto government that had used violent repression and political persecution over the previous year, while repeatedly postponing promised elections. That administration, led by ultra-conservative ex-senator Jeanine Áñez, got support from right-leaning Latin American governments, the US and the Organisation of American States (OAS). It also hired the Washington lobby firm CLS Strategies to sow disinformation through fake Facebook pages and other social media. At the heart of its stay in power, however, were media outlets willing mostly to ignore its crimes, even when well-documented by the likes of the University Network for Human Rights and Harvard Law School.

The military-backed Áñez government took control in November 2019 after forcibly ousting Morales, the first indigenous Bolivian president. It immediately began a regime of violent repression. Opposition leaders and journalists were persecuted and accused of terrorism and sedition. Communities protesting against the administration were brutally silenced by the military and police. At least two massacres were perpetrated against indigenous communities, including in Senkata, Ciudad del Alto, in November 2019. Despite numerous accounts of such vents, and the massive lethal state violence they entailed, little coverage reached the global media. When it did, it was often portrayed as ‘clashes’ between ‘both sides’.

On election night, shortly after the first results were announced, I spoke with Aymara historian Jhocelin Caspa, who witnessed the massacre in Senkata. Even with Arce comfortably ahead, she was fearful that right-wing groups and their international allies would come up with a new scheme to steal the elections, just as they had done one year previously. She had reason to be concerned. Election interference by the interim government, backed by the primarily US-funded and controlled OAS, had been constant throughout its tenure.

Fraudulent accusations

Days before the 2020 vote, the United Nations Development Programme revealed that the electoral authority appointed by the Áñez administration would not be publishing disaggregated data. The Washington Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) swiftly denounced the news, stating that it would make results difficult to validate. In 2019, disaggregated election data had been essential in disproving OAS claims that Morales had committed electoral fraud. The CEPR’s analysis of that data showed, within 24 hours of the OAS allegations, that Morales had secured victory in the first round. Researchers from other institutions, including MIT and the universities of Pennsylvania and Tulane, later drew the same conclusion, but for months CEPR was a lone voice.

Media outlets, including CNN, the New York Times, the BBC and El País reported the OAS allegations as fact, spreading the false narrative. This emboldened Morales’ opponents in their racist attacks on pro-Morales indigenous communities, steered by white-supremacist businessman Luis Fernando Camacho.

Journalists followed the OAS and interim government narrative largely uncritically. Few outlets reported that, hours before Morales’ forced resignation, the homes of his sister and senior party members were looted or burned. Reporters refused to describe events as a military coup, despite seeing the televised ‘request’ from the Bolivian armed forces that precipitated his resignation. When Morales left the country as a political refugee, reports frequently stated only that he had ‘fled’, rarely mentioning that he was facing trumped-up charges of terrorism and sedition – charges thrown out by a Bolivian court soon after MAS returned to power.

Meanwhile, in Washington, individuals connected to the coup were rewarded. President Trump nominated Carlos Trujillo, the US representative to the OAS, as assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs – the highest US foreign policy position in the region. The OAS secretary general, Luis Almagro, was re- elected with strong US support.

As evidence mounted that accusations of fraud were themselves fraudulent, more clues emerged that the caretaker government was a puppet regime. Erick Foronda, a former chief adviser to the US embassy in Bolivia, became the private secretary of the interim president Añez – before relocating to Washington as the Bolivian senior counsel to the OAS. Again, journalists failed to make the connections.

Only in June this year did a crack open in the dominant media narrative. A New York Times article acknowledged that OAS allegations of fraud were not evidenced and therefore ‘flawed’. However, the article still quoted, without challenge, a top OAS official who maintained that the original OAS analysis – which formed the political foundation for the coup – did not matter, making vague reference to ‘falsified statements of polls and hidden IT structures’. The OAS has failed to support these claims, despite requests for evidence. 2020 election data only casts further doubt on OAS claims.

Continuous disinformation

The interim government used a range of tactics to squash democracy. Two weeks before the 2020 election, interior minister Arturo Murillo, the architect of the violent political suppression, travelled to Washington. There, he met privately with state department officials before speaking with Almagro at an open meeting staged for the press at which Murillo requested OAS support because ‘MAS would try to destabilise the elections, because they know they will be defeated.’ Almagro echoed the baseless accusations, tweeting that Murillo had ‘conveyed his concern about the possibility of a new fraud’ in the upcoming elections. Their words were predictably published in the Latin American press.

When Murillo and Almagro met, however, polling already showed MAS candidate Arce as the clear frontrunner, with a lead large enough to win in the first round. The story of a potential fraud was not only without substance; it was part of a continuous disinformation campaign deployed to negate the democratic process in Bolivia, where an estimated 48 per cent of the population is indigenous. The people, however, were not deterred by suppression or disinformation efforts.

Arce’s huge margin of victory, by 26 percentage points, meant that the 2020 election results could not be contested. Face- saving attempts by the right-wing coalition to rewrite the narrative of their defeat now reframe the interim government as providing a bridge to a fair and transparent election. The OAS similarly and defiantly maintains that the 2019 election results were fraudulent and has sought credit for returning democracy in Bolivia.

In fact, Bolivians reclaimed their democracy not only from Áñez, the US and the OAS, but also from a global media that supported an imperialist agenda. The overwhelming popular support for Arce should be a wake-up call for these news outlets. Next time perhaps they’ll get the story straight.

Francesca Emanuele is a Peruvian journalist and PhD student at the American University in Washington, DC

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