Andres Oppenheimer writes for the Miami Herald:
Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the 34-nation Organization of American States, deserves a lot of credit for his leadership in the fight for democracy in Venezuela. But at the same time, unfortunately, he is propping up a dictatorship in Bolivia.
Almagro, who is running for a new term as OAS chief, visited Bolivia on May 17 and, surprisingly, backed authoritarian President Evo Morales’ unconstitutional bid for a fourth term in office. Until recently, Almagro had strongly criticized the Bolivian president’s illegal re-election bid.
But now, during his latest visit to Bolivia, Almagro accompanied Morales to his stronghold in the coca-rich Chapare province and, essentially, helped the Bolivian president launch his re-election campaign.
Standing close to the Bolivian ruler, Almagro said that, “It would be absolutely discriminatory” to deny Morales’ right to run for a fourth term. A day later, Morales officially launched his campaign for the Oct. 20 presidential elections, amid front-page headlines announcing that Almagro had OK’d Morales’ re-election bid.
When I first read Almagro’s statement, I thought he had been quoted out of context. But when I checked the video, it was indeed what the media had reported, a major de facto boost to Morales seeking yet another term.
Bolivia’s constitution explicitly prohibits more than two consecutive terms in office. In addition, Morales lost a Feb. 21, 2016, referendum that he had convened in an effort to change that constitutional clause so that he could run again. Furthermore, the Bolivian president, who has been in office since 2005, had repeatedly promised during his previous re-election campaign in 2014 that he would not run again.
Referring to the OAS chief’s U-turn on Morales’ fourth re-election, Bolivia’s opposition candidate Carlos Mesa said there are “shameful contradictions by Almagro. Yesterday he was saying that EvoMorales had to respect the Feb. 21 (2016) referendum, and today he’s talking about ‘discrimination’ against the illegal candidate.”
Mesa added that the OAS chief “has become functional to this authoritarian government.”
In 2017, Almagro publicly called on Morales to respect the results of the 2016 referendum. Almagro also openly supported the ruling of the Venice Convention, a European Council agency of constitutional experts, that had declared Morales’ arguments to run for a new term invalid.
Morales had made the ridiculous claim that he could run again because the OAS’ Human Rights Convention says that nobody can be denied the right to run for office and that international treaties supersede Bolivia’s national laws. Later, Morales had his hand-picked Constitutional Tribunal rule in his favor.
Former President Jorge Tuto Quiroga, now in the opposition, told me in a telephone interview that, “I’m afraid that this shameful turnaround by Almagro is due to the fact that he is trying to get re-elected as OAS chief, and needs Bolivia’s vote.” He added, “Almagro is committing the same sin as Venezuela’s Maduro or Nicaragua’s Ortega: trying to secure his re-election at any cost.”
The scandal over Morales’ unconstitutional re-election bid should ring alarm bells throughout the Americas because it’s part of a dangerous trend. The argument that presidents cannot be denied their human right to run for office indefinitely already has been tried in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras. If it’s allowed to set a precedent, it could be used in Mexico, or any other country.
Asked about the near unanimous criticism by Bolivia’s opposition leader, Almagro’s chief of staff, Gonzalo Koncke, told me that while Almagro had indeed called on Bolivia to respect the results of the 2016 referendum, “There are other institutional elements that can’t be ignored, such as Bolivia’s Constitutional Tribinal’s decision (to validate a fourth re-relection), and the fact that OAS bodies have not yet ruled about this issue.”
It doesn’t sound very convincing. As much as I applaud Almagro’s support for pro-democracy activists in Venezuela, he has given a huge propaganda victory to an aspiring dictator in Bolivia. There must be a better way to win votes for re-election at the OAS than compromising one’s democratic principles.