By Guillaume Long and Alexander Main – Jul 20, 2021
New statements about Bolivia’s 2019 elections, from an electoral authority who has previously been widely cited by proponents of an electoral fraud narrative, are reigniting calls for an investigation into the role that the Organization of American States (OAS) played in delegitimizing those elections and helping to pave the way for the November 2019 coup d’etat.
Antonio Costas Sitic is an expert in electoral matters, with a training in electronic systems engineering, who served twice in leadership roles in Bolivia’s top electoral body. In 2009, he was president of the National Electoral Court (CNE, by its Spanish initials), and from 2015 to 2019 he was vice president of the National Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which replaced the CNE when Bolivia’s 2009 constitution came into effect. He resigned from the TSE two days after the 2019 presidential elections, citing “the unwise decision of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to suspend publication of the preliminary electoral results transmission system (known as the TREP).”
Costas’s resignation has been cited by the OAS in defense of its claims that the 2019 vote count had been manipulated. Yet in a July 12, 2021 interview, Costas focuses his criticism on the OAS and its report on the audit of the 2019 elections, which alleges that the vote count was manipulated, and which was used to justify the military coup that forced President Evo Morales out of office on November 11, 2019.
In the interview, given to the Bolivian daily Página 7, Costas stated that the OAS report on the 2019 election audit was “an extremely superficial report, not technical at all. It’s not an audit.” Costas also questioned whether the auditors were in fact the authors of the report, hinting at the possibility of manipulation from higher up. He raised the question of whether OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro could be prosecuted for being behind a report that caused “such havoc” in Bolivia.
According to Costas, the audit cannot be considered an audit
… because it does not meet the minimum [requirements] of an audit. An audit must have a prior plan. I do not know the plan. The items to be analyzed should be specified… The field papers are not made public, neither are the experts’ reports; … or who came to do these analyses. It is not known if they are auditors, if they are certified to be auditors. On the matter of the computer audit, it is possible that people who are very skilled in this and not necessarily auditors have [been involved], but behind them there was an auditor, who is the one who has established the methodology.
In the interview, Costas also discussed how the head of the 2019 OAS electoral observation mission claimed, the day after the election, without evidence, that there had been a “drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend” of the vote count. Costas noted that these unfounded claims (which have been debunked repeatedly by CEPR and in studies reported in The New York Times and The Washington Post) resulted in a predetermined bias in favor of these claims in the drafting of the OAS audit report. In addition, Costas suggested that the fraud allegations were “the trigger for [the events of] that night and the night of Tuesday [October 22, 2019] when the Departmental Electoral Tribunals were burned down, and that was the responsibility of the head of the OAS Observation Mission.”
Costas’s remarks will further discredit the OAS’s accusations that the 2019 Bolivian elections were fraudulent. The OAS has often presented Costas’s resignation as part of its evidence that the 2019 Bolivian elections were intentionally manipulated in favor of incumbent president Evo Morales.
On October 23, the day after Costas’s resignation, the OAS released the preliminary report of the Mission of Electoral Observation in Bolivia. The Report expressed that
… it is especially alarming that on Tuesday, October 22, the Vice President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Antonio José Iván Costas Sitic, resigned, giving as the grounds for his resignation: ‘the erroneous decision by the TSE to suspend publication of the results of the Preliminary Electoral Results Transmission system (TREP),’ which ‘triggered the discrediting of the entire electoral process, causing unnecessary social upheaval.’ Judge Costas’ resignation further debilitates Bolivia’s electoral institutions. It heightens already existing mistrust. It could also impair the Tribunal’s functions, now that it has to operate with two vacancies among its members, pending their replacement.
The argument that Costas’s resignation helped to validate the fraud claims was reiterated in the OAS’s final audit report on the Bolivian elections. It also featured prominently in Almagro’s long, somewhat unhinged, June 16, 2020 press release. In his statement, Almagro denounced the “bias” of the New York Times, which, on June 7, had called into question the OAS’s accusations of fraud in the 2019 Bolivian elections. “The NYT has a well-documented controversial history with truth in relation to dictatorships and totalitarianism. For example, in 1931 the New York Times correspondent in the Soviet Union, Walter Duranty, failed to identify and report the starvation of millions of Ukrainians caused by Stalin’s totalitarian regime,” Almagro’s press release claimed.
In this statement, Almagro highlighted again that “the vice president of the TSE, Antonio José Iván Costas Sitic, who was in charge of the TREP, presented his resignation, citing ‘the unwise decision of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to suspend publication of the results of the [TREP],’ which ‘resulted in the discrediting of the entire electoral process, causing unnecessary social upheaval.’”
In its 2020 report on the OAS Audit of the Bolivian elections, CEPR’s Jake Johnston and David Rosnick established:
The same day [October 22], Antonio Costas, the vice president of the TSE, resigned, citing the suspension of the TREP and the resulting lack of confidence in the electoral process. On October 23, in an interview with local press, Costas explained that the audit company’s maximum alert was the product of ‘excessive zeal’ and that he did not view that as a valid reason to stop the TREP. ‘There is no fraud, there were imperfections,’ he said. Costas claimed to have argued for the TREP’s resumption, telling the other TSE officials that he had a ‘reliable engineer’ compare the TREP and Cómputo [official count] results and that they matched.
In this recent interview, Costas goes so far as suggesting that the OAS audit report was not the fruit of the work of experts that were dispatched to Bolivia to carry out their technical work, but that it had been manipulated by others. “I refuse to believe, at least in the area of computer analysis and electoral process, that the experts I know, who came [to Bolivia], and they are very knowledgeable people about the subject, [said these things]… so the conclusions they reached are conclusions that… [laughter] I believe are not theirs,” said Costas [ellipses in the original].
Costas also denounced the OAS audit report’s lack of professionalism. He complained, in particular, that
the OAS report does not even… describe in an objective way the logic of the processing system of the Cómputo. It does not understand it and says that the manipulation of that system means the results must be rejected, but [the OAS auditors] didn’t know how many servers there were, they didn’t know what function these performed, where they were installed, none of that is known by the OAS, nothing. And regarding the TREP, for example, that server –there were actually two, I did not know about the second [server], I found out about it when they called a meeting, [and those servers] served as gateways [bridges]. From the preliminary data I have –I want to check it with the official database managed by the Prosecutor’s Office– there were no modifications [of the election data].
Regarding the transmission of the results, Costas said
… that in that 2019 electoral process, 98% of the tally sheets were transmitted from the voting precincts to the central system of the TREP on the first day and that had never happened before. Ninety five percent of the tally sheets were verified on the second day, and they were verified with a delay that was caused by the suspension of the TREP, because had the tally sheets been verified that night, we would have had 95% verified. If we calculate the votes that were received at the time of transmission [of the TREP on October 20], the difference between MAS and Comunidad Ciudadana was 10.36%… If we look at the difference at the moment of the verification with those hours of delay, the difference between MAS and Comunidad Ciudadana is 10.15 and, finally, if we look at the difference when the official count concluded, it is 10.56. And if I tell you that 98% of the tally sheets were transmitted on the first day, manipulating tally sheets would be very difficult because all the data was in the servers.
Though Costas was known to be critical of Evo Morales, in particular of the former president’s decision to run for reelection in 2019, he and other TSE officials were charged with election fraud and jailed by Bolivia’s de facto authorities. Costas was detained between November 2019 and January 2020, before being granted house arrest. Along with five other members of the TSE, Costas is still the subject of a pretrial investigation. No charges have yet been brought against him. In the last few months, Bolivian courts have dismissed all pending cases against former members of Bolivia’s Departmental Electoral Tribunals (TEDs), several of whom had also been jailed after the 2019 elections.
Alexander Main is Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.
Featured image: Antonio José Iván Costas Sitic
Guillaume Long is a senior policy analyst at CEPR. Prior to joining CEPR, Guillaume held several cabinet positions in the government of Ecuador, including Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Culture, and Minister of Knowledge and Human Talent. Most recently, he served as Ecuador’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva.