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Editorial | Why Luis Almagro should go

Published:Monday | November 18, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Bolivia is the latest front line where the credibility of the Organization of American States (OAS) is on test, further underlining the need for urgent action to rebuild hemispheric trust in the organisation. Such a reboot would likely have to include replacing its rigidly ideological secretary general, Luis Almagro, with someone capable of tolerating, and working with, leaders across the political spectrum.

A week ago, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president of 14 years, resigned after disputed elections and went into exile in Mexico. He claimed he had been the victim of a coup, orchestrated with the support of the OAS.

Bolivia’s presidential election was always going to be controversial. Having narrowly lost a 2016 referendum on whether he should run for a fourth consecutive term, Mr Morales, 60, a left-wing politician and Latin America’s first indigenous president, appealed to the Supreme Court, which held such term limits to be illegal.

He clearly had the most votes among the candidates in the race, but a dispute emerged over whether, if he hadn’t won more than 50 per cent of the ballots, his lead over his nearest rival, former President Carlos Mesa, was at least 10 per cent, so as to avoid a run-off. The opposition said no, leading to unrest in the capital, La Paz, and other cities, including attacks on officials in Mr Morales’ party.

His initial response to the violence, influenced, in part, by calls from some of his key supporters for compromise, was to announce an annulment of the election and plans for a new vote. But he had been undercut by a report from an OAS election observer mission, led by former Costa Rican Foreign Minister Mañuel Gonzalez, claiming apparent manipulation of the ballot count by the election authorities “that drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process”.

The Bolivian army, concomitantly, “suggested” that Mr Morales resign to prevent further chaos, which the president said he did, “because I don’t want to see any more families attacked by instructions” of opposition leaders.

Mr Morales, at the same time, dismissed the conclusion of the OAS mission, claiming that the organisation doesn’t work “in the service of the people of Latin America”, but of those of the United States.

Not very long ago, in Latin America’s post-insurgency era and the elevation of several English-speaking Caribbean countries to membership of the organisation, the OAS’ s declaration would likely have been an ultimate voice of moral authority on the Bolivian election. Mr Morales’ protestations would have been merely noted.


Unfortunately, in recent years, the OAS, under Mr Almagro’s leadership and the direction of some key member states, has reprised elements of the Cold War, assuming a radical oppositionist, if not directly interventionist, posture to governments of the left. This stance, his critics say, is epitomised in Mr Almagro’s partisan statements against Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela’s political crisis and his steering of the organisation into a vote that recognised Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president.

It is not surprising, in the circumstance, that Mr Morales’ supporters felt that among the first acts of Bolivia’s interim president, deputy head of the Senate, Jeanine Anez, was to recognise Mr Guaidó.

Operational heads have great sway in setting the tone of institutions they lead. Mr Almagro has been a clearly divisive figure who the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has had, on a number of occasions, to rebuke for speaking out of turn in seeking to assume powers beyond his remit by committing the OAS to positions on which member states didn’t vote.

Even Jamaica, which disagrees with some of its CARICOM partners on Venezuela, has had cause to be distressed by some of Mr Almagro’s pronouncements.

He should move on. He is a distraction from the fundamentals of the OAS.