Follow-up on the Bolivian Coup

In fall 2019, after accusations of election fraud, the Bolivian police removed support for president Evo Morales, and interim president Jeanine Áñez was installed in his place.

I wrote about the event at the time, focusing less on the election and resignation itself, and more on the question of epistemology in a hostile environment.  An uncritical read of the news at the time would suggest that the forced resignation was just—Morales manipulated election results and was being appropriately deposed.  However, a rational actor should be critical of the news: American news is systematically biased in favor of United States special interests and seemingly bases its assessment of an election’s legitimacy not on democratic principals but on whether or not the elected leader supports US influence in the region.  Because of this news bias, I was agnostic about the exact situation in Bolivia, but was willing to call what happened a “coup” because I knew that a similar event in a US client state would be considered a coup. Consistency is important, I concluded. Inconsistent standards do not lead to democracy, inconsistent standards serve the the interests of whoever gets to set the standards—in this case US elites.

I wasn’t really comfortable with this take at the time.  It’s important to apply consistent standards across elections, but of course “consistent standards” does not mean blindly supporting any state that the US opposes—I don’t want to make the same mistake as the American communists who assumed that the Cambodian genocide was a fabrication.  I was anxious that in calling Morales’ resignation a “coup,” I was ignoring anti-Morales evidence, and denouncing real grass-roots opposition to an illegitimate leader who was set on becoming president-for-life.

The information that has come out since has assuaged my anxiety and confirmed my initial instincts; if anything, at the time of the original post, I was insufficiently pessimistic about the accuracy of the US mainstream news media.  The interim president, Áñez, has not behaved like a temporary president whose job is to oversee new fair and free elections.  Instead she has pushed a right-wing Christian agenda.  Upon declaring herself interim president, she held a giant bible above her head, shouting “The Bible has returned to the presidential palace.”  She immediately replaced the entire cabinet and the top military leaders with white Christian conservatives. And she even preemptively granted amnesty to military members who use force to quell protests.

Since then, the new Bolivian government has charged 40 former government officials with sedition and subversion, and government prosecutors have moved against the most popular (socialist) candidate for the coming election.

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article by researchers at MIT calling into question the accusations of election fraud.  The main proponent of the fraud accusation was the US-backed Organization of American States (a group that has historically opposed leftism in the Americas):  The OAS audited the election and found what it called “clear manipulation,” based in part on the statistically unlikely jump in Morales’ support between the preliminary result tally and the official vote count.1The preliminary results showed Morales with a plurality of votes, but without a sufficient lead to avoid a run-off election. When the official results came out, they had him leading by the 10 percentage points necessary to win outright.  The OAS recognized the plurality as legitimate, but not the 10 percent margin.   As the researchers at MIT point out, the OAS neglected to take into account the fact that votes can vary by time of day.  Using a more sophisticated statistical analysis, the researchers found no evidence of election tampering.

In short, there was probably no election fraud in Bolivia.

The researchers cogently conclude by pointing out that the standards the OAS used to judge the Bolivian election would also suggest that United States elections are illegitimate:

Previous research published here in the Monkey Cage finds that economic and racial differences make it difficult to verify voter registration in the United States, resulting in higher use of provisional ballots among Democrats — and greater support for Democratic candidates among votes counted after Election Day. Under the OAS criteria for fraud, it’s possible that U.S. elections in which votes that are counted later tend to lean Democratic might also be classified as fraudulent. Of course, electoral fraud is a serious problem, but relying on unverified tests as proof of fraud is a serious threat to any democracy.

Of course, this hypocrisy extends beyond the OAS to United States news corporations in general. In addition to the jump in Morales’ vote tally, news at the time focused on the interrupted results transmission, and the delay in the release of the official results, even though the interruption and the delay was consistent with Bolivian election protocol.  Contrast this with the mainstream media’s response to the recent delay in the Iowa caucus results.  In both cases, the delay caused doubt in the electoral process.  Both delays led to equally (in)valid conspiracy theories of election fraud.2For example, “Anti-Sanders billionaires, behind the app that delayed Iowa’s voting results”  In the case of the Iowa caucus, although I’ve seen conspiracy theories all over leftist youtube and reddit, mainstream news sources have ignored conspiracy theories and reported only the official reasons for the delay. In the case of the Bolivian election, US media failed to disclose the official reason for the delay, and uncritically reported a conspiracy theory as putative fact.  And, like the OAS’s abuse of statistics, this kind of misreporting is a serious threat to democracy.

What puts the icing on the cake for this Washington Post article, is the way the article itself reflects the hypocrisy of the mainstream media.  The text of the article, written by the MIT researchers, is fine.  It’s narrow in scope, criticizing only the OAS’s statistical analysis, and not going into the organization’s backing or history.  It doesn’t comment on whether the OAS’s bad analysis is a dangerous but honest mistake or willful negligence or intentional disinformation.  It doesn’t comment on the mainstream media’s reaction to the audit.  It only critiques the audit itself.  The title of the article, presumably written by a copy-editor, is another story:  “Bolivia dismissed its October elections as fraudulent. Our research found no reason to suspect fraud.”

Titles are important.  People browsing the news might not even read the article in question, and will take away whatever information the title contains.  Of course, we can’t expect a title to be very nuanced, or even to be a good synopsis of an article, but it should at least be accurate. “Bolivia dismissed its October elections as fraudulent.”  The article is about the opinion of OAS, not the opinion of Bolivia.

This title, although it recognizes that the evidence for election fraud was faulty, still frames the resignation of Morales as the legitimate will of the Bolivian people.  “Bolivia dismissed….”  Bolivia is not a unified entity with a clear single opinion, and the diagnosis of election fraud was controversial in Bolivia.  And even if we accept the synecdoche as valid, the protests against the election did not happen in a vacuum.  Opponents of Morales cited the election audit conducted by a US-backed organization.  The eventual undemocratic interim presidency of Jeanine Áñez happened with foreign support.  Bolivia dismissed the election results?  No.  The international community dismissed the election results.

Chances are, this title was not written with malice.  Whoever wrote it was trying to give a quick, clear, and intriguing summary of the article.  “The OAS dismissed…” wouldn’t be a viable title.  Most people don’t know what the OAS is.  Disinformation does not require malintent to spread—it can happen via accumulated random seemingly small acts of negligence.  The copy-editor is exposed to the same media bias as everyone else, and that bias makes its way subtly into the titles of articles.  In an honest media landscape, information like the recent critique of the OAS audit would cause self-reflection about failed journalistic responsibility, but the stochastic propaganda machine that is the Washington Post ignores the role that the US media played in the Bolivian coup.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The preliminary results showed Morales with a plurality of votes, but without a sufficient lead to avoid a run-off election. When the official results came out, they had him leading by the 10 percentage points necessary to win outright.  The OAS recognized the plurality as legitimate, but not the 10 percent margin.
2. For example, “Anti-Sanders billionaires, behind the app that delayed Iowa’s voting results”

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