After three days of uncertainty and attempts by the Bolivian government to undermine the results of the recent referendum, Bolivians rejected a constitutional amendment aimed at securing indefinite reelection of the president. The amendment, initiated by President Evo Morales passed Congress by a two-thirds majority in September but in spite of that Morales did not win the support of the majority of Bolivians.

This referendum took place 7 years after Hugo Chavez of Venezuela won a similar referendum and at a time when Venezuela is now facing the worst political and economic disaster in its history. Indeed, Venezuela’s hyper-presidentialism and “Ceasarism” has led to a de-facto authoritarian regime, unaccountable to its’ citizens and with an economy that is heading towards default. The current state of oil prices, the polarization and mismanagement of the oil industry, the destruction of the private sector, the lack of transparency and corruption have placed the country in a state of chaos.

Before the election, Morales claimed that by asking the voters to run for a third term and remain in the presidency until 2025 he was simply following the will of the people. But the people proved him wrong.

Morales remained popular thanks to his polices of government expenditures and redistribution of income. The high prices of Bolivian raw materials in the international market have allowed Bolivia to enjoy economic growth of 5% per year. This enabled Morales to redistribute and reduce extreme poverty from 38% to 17%.

But Morales lost because, like Chavez, he tried to turn popular support, not just into personal power but also increase state power at the expense of civil society. In the last few years the Assembly that responds to the president gave executive authorities broad powers to dissolve civil society organizations with no limitations. Likewise, it enabled government to revoke permits to any such organization and a series of vague provisions that give leeway to the government to make arbitrary decisions.

Just a few days before the election a municipal building in El Alto, the second most populated city in the country, that is controlled by the opposition, was set on fire during protests. This incident led to the death by asphyxiation of six city workers. The protests were led by parents and pupils who demanded more funds for the schools. However, the protests were soon joined by unions allied with the government and this is when the tragic incident took place.

As a result of the recent vote, Bolivians have, for the time being, stopped the process that led Venezuela to the disaster it is today. The current chaotic state of Venezuela is the result of the increasing state power, arbitrariness, censorship, violence, and repression of the most creative economic and political forces in civil society. In last December’s parliamentary elections, Venezuelans rendered a blow to the cycle of state arbitrariness by increasing the power of the national Assembly that is now effectively limiting the power of Maduro. It is likely that Bolivians learned from that experience

Another element that is worthy to point out is the fact that the Supreme Electoral Council reaffirmed the defeat of Mr. Morales despite attempts by the government to challenge the results. But that was also the result of an active civil society organization and the action of the observers of the Organization of American States (OAS) which after more than a decade of complacency with left-wing authoritarianism are showing signs of commitment to democracy.

Indeed, NGO’s denounced the Electoral Council in the capital, La Paz, saying that the counting was being conducted in an irregular manner. Indeed, the counting was done behind closed doors and with heavy military and police guard.  A protest was organized by citizens who complained that they were not allowed to enter the room to verify the transparency of the process. Likewise, complaints were raised over continuous adjournments in the counting centers over supposed mistakes in the counting of votes.

By the same token, OAS observers claimed, with suspicion, that the counting was way too slow and expressed their belief that there was either incompetence or intentional irregularity.

We commend civil society groups, NGO’s and OAS observers for speaking up and not allowing the Morales government to deceive the will of the people.

We also believe that the defeat of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in the parliamentarian elections ; the defeat of Cristina Kirchner in the Argentinean presidential election last October, and the leadership of Luis Almagro as the new Secretary General of the OAS are providing hope that in Latin America democracy and the rule of law could be finally restored.

Meanwhile, the United States Administration needs to be more vocal and active in supporting and encouraging these processes. The Obama Administration’s statements and actions have not been sufficient.

In fact, we have seen a more active role by the U.S. in normalizing relations with Cuba and promoting a still problematic agreement between Colombia and the FARC.  In Cuba the U.S. is legitimizing a regime still ruled by Communist revolutionaries and human right violators. While in Colombia, the government is moving into potentially dangerous territory by giving too many concessions to a narco-terrorist organization craving access to the political process.

The next American president must reevaluate U.S. policy towards Latin America in light of these events.

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