By Gregory Shupak – Oct 30, 2020
When Bolivia’s democratically elected President Evo Morales, representing the party known as the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), was overthrown in a coup last fall, corporate media earned an assist. As FAIR demonstrated, they refused to call the coup a coup (FAIR.org, 11/11/19); praised the country’s new far-right, self-appointed president Jeanine Áñez (11/15/19); and glossed over the coup government’s massacres (12/13/19).
Prior to the October 18, 2020, election, in which a wide majority of voters chose MAS candidate Luis Arce, corporate media coverage of Bolivia bolstered the image of the country’s US-backed right wing. At the same time, US media denigrated the left-wing MAS and obscured US meddling in the country. Following the election, similar tendencies have prevailed in corporate media (FAIR.org, 10/23/20).
When Jeanine Áñez, Bolivia’s unelected president, announced that she was withdrawing from this month’s election so as to try to unite the country’s right and center against Arce, the New York Times(9/17/20) wrote that she had “a stormy year in power during which divisions in her polarized nation grew only deeper.” This phrasing conceals the white supremacist terror that the Áñez government carried out after seizing power in November 2019. That month, as a report from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) documented, the coup government killed 23 Bolivian civilians and injured more than 230, with “credible evidence” showing that “military and police used racist and anti-Indigenous language during violent encounters with civilians.”
The IHRC reported:
On Friday, November 15, Bolivian security forces opened fire on demonstrators on the main road that passes through Sacaba, a town outside Cochabamba. At least 11 civilians were killed and 120 were injured. All were Indigenous. Many witnesses stated that the casualty rate was substantially higher because victims were frightened to register their injuries with the government. According to Bolivian officials, no state forces were killed or injured.
The IHRC showed that four days later, in the Senkata district of the city of El Alto,
Bolivian state forces again shot teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at Indigenous protestors and bystanders…. At least 11 civilians were killed by live bullets and 72 civilians injured. Once again, all casualties were Indigenous. No soldier or police officer was shot.
Flimsy formulations like saying Añez had a “stormy year,” and that “divisions in her polarized nation grew only deeper,” give readers no indication that the Áñez government carried out these two massacres. This phrasing suggests that all involved in the “polarized nation” contributed to and experienced the “stormy year” in comparable ways. The both sides–ism at play here burnishes the international reputation of the Bolivian right wing by downplaying its violence.
Weasel words were not unique to the New York Times. The Associated Press(9/26/20) listed agent-less “violence” following the October 2019 election as part of the sequence of events leading to former president Evo Morales’ departure. But an Amnesty International report makes clear that, in the immediate aftermath of the October 2019 election and of Áñez’s subsequent takeover, the police and military fired live ammunition at protesters when they were under her control, but not when Morales was still president. The AP noted that Áñez’s government has “been accused of undermining Bolivia’s democratic institutions, including the judiciary,” though presumably AP could have found someone whose objections to her government included its mass-murdering Indigenous protesters.
In the same vein, Reuters (10/8/20) described Bolivian voters as having been “hit hard by political turmoil”—quite a wishy-washy euphemism, given that many Bolivian civilians have been “hit hard” not only by “political turmoil,” but also by bullets Áñez’s government fired following its undemocratic takeover of the country. The article said that Morales “resigned in 2019 after a fraught election that was dogged by allegations of fraud, sparking off a period of political tumult and violent protest.” Yet, as Amnesty and the IHRC’s reports illustrate, the Áñez government has by far and away been the source of the most severe violence since October 2020, not “violent protest” conducted by unspecified actors for unspecified reasons.
Fraudulent allegations of fraud
The “allegations of fraud” against Morales Reuters mentioned are another way corporate media boosted the Bolivian right, making it sound as if there had been a compelling case that Morales stole the 2019 election. Reuters (10/9/20) deployed the same talking point again in a piece that said “a fraught ballot last year prompted Morales’ resignation.” AP’s account (9/26/20), similarly, listed “disputed vote results” as a reason Morales’ presidency ended. None of these articles bother to point out that what was offered as supposed evidence of fraud in Morales’ October 2019 victory has been widely debunked (FAIR.org, 11/18/19, 12/17/19, 3/5/20, 7/8/20).
The fraud narrative gained traction and the appearance of legitimacy from the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS’s position hinged on a scheduled pause in a preliminary “quick count” meant to track progress before the official count, which the organization bizarrely treated as cause for suspicion. The OAS claimed that the break in the preliminary count resulted in a “highly unlikely” trend in the vote pattern in favor of MAS when the count resumed, and expressed “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results.”
John Curiel and Jack R. Williams, two researchers at MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, studied the OAS’s account. “As specialists in election integrity,” they wrote (Washington Post, 2/27/20), “we find that the statistical evidence does not support the claim of fraud in Bolivia’s October  election.” These findings echo those that the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) produced in real time, as events were unfolding in the fall of 2019. Curiel and Williams went on to say:
There does not seem to be a statistically significant difference in the margin before and after the halt of the preliminary vote. Instead, it is highly likely that Morales surpassed the 10-percentage-point margin in the first round.
(To win the first round, a candidate has to get at least 40% of the vote and have a victory margin of at least 10 percentage points, or else get a simple majority of the vote.)
ran 1,000 simulations to see if the difference between Morales’ vote and the tally for the second-place candidate could be predicted, using only the votes verified before the preliminary count halted. In our simulations, we found that Morales could expect at least a 10.49-point lead over his closest competitor, above the necessary 10-percentage-point threshold necessary to win outright. Again, this suggests that any increase in Morales’ margin after the stop can be explained entirely by the votes already counted.
Neither the Reuters nor AP articles, however, mention this debunking of the “allegations of fraud against Morales” made by the side in the “disput[e]” that claims Morales stole the election; if the contest was particularly “fraught,” it was because of assertions of MAS vote-rigging that lacked a strong evidentiary basis.
The New York Times (9/17/20) reported that Áñez came to power “last November after a chaotic election.” “If the election was “chaotic,” it was because of the Bolivian right’s unfounded position that the MAS victory was fraudulent. Oddly, the journalist who reduced what happened during the 2019 vote to a “chaotic election” was Anatoly Kurmanaev, the same reporter who last summer co-authored a Times piece (6/7/20) that discussed a study of the election results conducted by independent researchers Francisco Rodríguez of Tulane University, and Dorothy Kronick and Nicolás Idrobo of the University of Pennsylvania. The researchers found “no statistical evidence of fraud,” Kurmanaev reported, and
said they were unable to replicate the OAS’s findings using its likely techniques. They said a sudden change in the trend appeared only when they excluded results from the manually processed, late-reporting polling booths.
This suggests that the organization used an incorrect data set to reach its conclusion, the researchers said. The difference is significant: the 1,500 excluded late-reporting booths account for the bulk of the final votes that the OAS statistical analysis claims are suspicious.
Also, the academics said the organization used an inappropriate statistical method that artificially created the appearance of a break in the voting trend.
This research—like that of CEPR and the MIT election experts—demolished the notion that Morales committed “electoral fraud.”
Meanwhile Kurmanaev, who seems to have forgotten his own work, provided readers with no sense of how weak the evidence was of so-called MAS “electoral fraud,” information that is essential to understanding what has happened in Bolivia in the last year.
Relatedly, the more recent of Kurmanaev’s Times articles (9/17/20) also said that Áñez’s presidency “began in a surprising fashion,” which fails to adequately capture how she came to power. As Harvard’s IHRC showed:
Police forces withdrew their support for Morales, and the military “suggested” that Morales resign. Conservative opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho stated on television that he bribed the police to revolt, and later revealed that his father convinced the police and military to mutiny. On November 10, 2019, Morales stepped down as president, saying that a coup had ousted him after a price was put on his head. The next three officials in line, including the vice president and the presidents of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, all MAS members, subsequently resigned amidst attacks on their safety, including death threats and the burning of houses belonging to MAS officials….
Opposition leaders met on November 12, 2019, to determine who would replace Morales. At this meeting were representatives of the Catholic Church; the Brazilian Ambassador; members of the Comité Nacional de Defensa de la Democracia (CONADE); a representative from the European Union; and opposition political leaders, including Jerjes Justiniano, a lawyer for Camacho and soon-to-be minister of the presidency for the interim government; and Ricardo Paz, campaign chief for Carlos Mesa’s party. None of these individuals were elected Bolivian officials.
This group decided that Jeanine Áñez, a Senate vice-president whose conservative party had secured 4% of the vote during the elections, should become the interim president. They called Áñez to offer her the position. Two days later, Áñez declared herself president during a nearly empty Senate session. The opposition decried the transition as illegitimate, since Áñez lacked the requisite legislative quorum. MAS senators—who control two-thirds of the congressional seats—had either boycotted the proceedings or did not attend due to safety threats. Áñez then met with the armed forces and the police to gain their support for her presidency.
“Surprising” is one way to describe that, though “coup d’état” is more accurate.
Making it sound like there’s good reason to believe that the MAS tried to steal last year’s election, while simultaneously minimizing or denying the extent to which the Bolivian right subverted a democratically elected government, amounts to a groundless slur against MAS and apologia for Bolivia’s right wing. That approach set the stage for US audiences to be susceptible to buy into future propaganda claims that call into question the MAS’s democratic legitimacy.
Some pre-2020 election commentary did more than insinuate that accurate and inaccurate narratives about the 2019 election were equally valid, instead directly promoting false accounts. A column in The Hill (10/8/20) revolved around the baseless suggestion that an MAS victory in this month’s election would endanger “Western security.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Andres Martinez Fernandez wrote in the column that Morales resigned last year “for electoral fraud,” as though it were a settled fact that the MAS stole the election rather than a discredited slander.
A Wall Street Journal opinion piece (10/11/20)—pivoting around the unsubstantiated contention that the MAS are “cocaine traffickers”—called Morales “one of the Western Hemisphere’s most insidious threats to democracy.” “Evidence—including an audit by the Organization of American States—supported allegations that MAS committed fraud,” author Mary Anastasia O’Grady incorrectly wrote.
None of this coverage, furthermore, makes clear the not-so-hidden hand of the US in the 2019 coup, and hence also responsibility for the subsequent massacres of Indigenous Morales supporters. As Jeb Sprague chronicled in the Grayzone (11/13/19), the US military’s School of the Americas trained some of the Bolivians central to planning the coup, while others were attachés in FBI police programs. The OAS, whose bogus claims about MAS allegedly stealing the election provided a crucial ideological smokescreen for the coup, gets the majority of its funding from the US and has often functioned as an appendage of the American empire, abetting US aggression against Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras and Venezuela (FAIR.org, 11/18/19).
The US ruling class, and its allies in countries such as Canada, have long been at odds with MAS for its pesky tendency to use Bolivian resource wealth to benefit Bolivians rather than foreign corporations—a tension exacerbated by Chinese investment in Bolivia. Nor is it likely that policymakers in the imperial core grew more fond of Morales when, six days before the 2019 coup, he cancelled a contract for lithium development with a German firm that provides batteries to the US tech giant Tesla.
Americans who prefer that their country stop stifling the aspirations of peoples around the world might like to know about US ruling class connections to the 2019 coup, but US media have opted not to bring attention to this information.
Continuing hostile coverage
That MAS won this month’s election in an apparent landslide hasn’t meant an end to US media hostilities. The Wall StreetJournal (10/19/20) said that Arce’s victory comes after “observers from the Organization of American States said that an audit turned up ‘clear manipulation’ of the voting system” in Bolivia’s 2019 election, as though the OAS verdict were universally accepted rather than widely rejected. The paper misleadingly described Morales’ ouster as a “resignation”—as though it were voluntary—and said that Áñez’s government “has been criticized as corrupt and botching its response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” without mentioning that it has also been criticized for slaughtering protestors and rampant political repression. The AP (10/19/20), similarly, said Morales left “when police and military leaders suggested he leave,” akin to saying that a shopkeeper gave the Mafia protection money when they “suggested” doing so.
A subsequent Journal (10/20/20) article quoted Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center:
“This is the election that Bolivia would’ve had a year ago if Evo had respected the constitution,” Mr. Shultz said, referring to Mr. Morales’ failed bid to seek a fourth term and the turmoil that followed. “Bolivia would’ve been spared all of the trauma over the last year.”
Curiously, the article does not give space to anyone offering the perspective that “Bolivia would’ve been spared all of the trauma over the last year” if the country’s US-backed right wing hadn’t carried out a coup and then murdered people. Never mind that Morales’ 2019 bid for a fourth term wasn’t “failed,” in that he won the vote, and there are no credible claims he did so because of fraud; it’s also not true that Morales failed to “respect…the constitution.” While the results of a referendum said that Morales could not run for a fourth term, the country’s Supreme Electoral Court later ruled that Morales could run in 2019.
AP (10/20/20) took the same line, saying that Morales “shrugged aside a public vote that had set term limits,” as if the court’s decision hadn’t taken place, and as if courts don’t regularly overturn democratic decisions, including referendums, in the US or liberal democracies the world over.
Continuing to lie about Morales and MAS even after this year’s electoral triumph functions as an attempt to discredit socialists in Bolivia, Latin America and beyond, giving the MAS an undeserved reputation for being authoritarian while papering over the worst violations the Bolivian right enacted in its year in power. Muddying the facts in this fashion perpetuates the narrative that Bolivia’s left-wing forces are enemies of human rights and democracy, propaganda that could make it harder for citizens in the Global North to demand their governments allow Bolivians to self-govern as they see fit.
In these ways, the coverage is priming American audiences to acquiesce to their government’s support for the racist, violent, undemocratic Bolivian right wing, and against an MAS movement that has brought major gains to the Bolivian population.