FIU Magazine: "Strengthening democracy in Latin America"

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian Ph.D. ’05 organizes election observation missions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean for the Organization of American States

Image 1

By Deborah O’Neil MA ’09, LACC Graduate Certificate '09

When the votes are tallied on election day, the first question we ask is, “Who won?” However, the more important question might be not who won, but how: Was it a free and fair election?

The answer can have lasting implications for a country’s future. International support or sanctions. Popular celebrations or uprisings. Political legitimacy or instability.

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian Ph.D. ’05 has spent nearly a decade building and strengthening the foundation of free and fair elections in Latin America. As an elections expert with the Organization of American States, she has helped stage local, regional and national votes in El Salvador, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and Costa Rica. In 2010, she will serve as the deputy chief of mission for Colombia’s March legislative election and May presidential election.

Her work is the behind-the-scenes mechanics of democracy: non-partisan cooperation, strategic analysis, technical training, problem solving. The Venezuelan-born Muñoz-Pogossian believes her work is an important part of the political life of a country.

“It’s very, very exciting. I can see something concrete come out of the things we do,” Muñoz-Pogossian said. “The best part is the person who is benefitting the most is the citizen.”

The OAS is an international organization based in Washington, D.C., made up of 35 Latin American and Caribbean countries. Its mission is to promote democracy, human rights, security and development in the Western Hemisphere. Muñoz-Pogossian began working there as an intern while she was a political science doctoral student at FIU. When the OAS offered her a full-time position, she hesitated to go to Washington because she had not finished her dissertation. But the job was too good to forego, so she did both.

“I got up at 5 a.m. to be able to write before I went to work,” she said.

She credits political science professor [and LACC faculty associate] Eduardo Gamarra, her dissertation chair, for keeping her focused. “If you don’t have a good mentor when you are finishing your dissertation you aren’t going to succeed,” she said. “I owe a lot of what I was able to do to Dr. Gamarra.”

Gamarra arranged for Muñoz-Pogossian to interview officials at the highest levels of Bolivian government for her dissertation research.

After she graduated, Gamarra worked with Muñoz-Pogossian to turn her dissertation into a book that was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008. Her book, Electoral Rules and the Transformation of Bolivian Politics: The Rise of Evo Morales, is the first book-length analysis of the rise of power of Morales and his political party.

“Betilde is one of the most focused and driven students I have ever had the privilege of mentoring,” Gamarra said. “Apart from writing a very good dissertation, which is now a book, she has become one of the foremost experts on elections at the OAS. I swell with pride when I see her elbowing her way around heads of state to insure that electoral rules and outcomes are respected.”

Today, Muñoz-Pogossian is the chief of the Electoral Studies and Projects section of the OAS Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation. The travel is extensive. In 2009, she took eight trips to Latin America, ranging from a few days to six weeks. She takes her daughter Emma, who will be 2 in June, with her; sometimes her husband joins them also.

Her role at the OAS is to bridge electoral field work and theory. She helps implement electoral observation missions, observing myriad details from ensuring polls are accessible and poll workers are trained, to how votes are tallied and results officially proclaimed. Afterward, she analyzes best practices.

“My research background helps me a lot,” she said. “I have the opportunity to write about the lessons learned from the field.”

The OAS assists with elections only when invited. For the host country, the presence of the OAS observers helps prevent fraud and irregularities.

Historically Latin American countries have struggled to separate the politics of elections from the process. As recently as November 2008, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega barred the OAS and other international organizations from observing its municipal elections. Allegations of massive vote fraud by the opposition party led to riots in the capital.

For most Latin American countries, however, electoral fraud, one-party dominance, voter intimidation, election-day violence and voting restrictions meant to exclude the poor are scars of the past. The greater challenge today, says Muñoz-Pogossian, is creating equitable conditions for political competition. It is vital that political figures compete in a level playing field. A country’s political campaign financing model can contribute to this, and that is something the OAS observes.

In 2009, Muñoz-Pogossian witnessed the transformative power of democratic elections in El Salvador. She served as the deputy chief of mission for the historic national election that ended nearly two decades of one-party rule. The vitriolic campaign had reignited factions from the country’s 12-year civil war. Yet despite widespread fears of violence, both parties accepted the transition of power peacefully.

OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza praised Salvadorans for “displaying their affinity for democracy and exercising their right to vote in peace, leaving behind a history of brutal confrontation that only brought pain to this beautiful Central American country.”

The election was a moment of pride for Muñoz-Pogossian too. “It was seeing democracy, seeing people decide. You know you are doing something for the good.”

Muñoz-Pogossian says the years of travel and interactions with the people of Latin America have broadened her world view.

“I’m definitely a different person from when I started,” she said. “Maybe I have even changed my point of view of what it is to be ‘left’ or to be a neoliberal. When you see people who have nothing to eat exercising their political rights, you understand things from a completely different perspective.”