‘This Will Be Forever’: How the Ambitions of Evo Morales Contributed to His Fall

‘This Will Be Forever’: How the Ambitions of Evo Morales Contributed to His Fall


It was a watershed moment for democracy in Latin America.

Evo Morales, an Indigenous leader who rose to prominence in the hardscrabble world of coca growers unions in Bolivia, stood before his compatriots to take the oath of office in 2006, mincing no words as he described the sea change his landslide presidential victory represented.

“Our communities, historically, have been marginalized, humiliated, hated, despised and condemned to extinction,” Mr. Morales said in his inauguration speech. “Our people were never recognized as human beings, even though these communities are the rightful owners of the noble land and its natural resources.”

The rise of Mr. Morales and other pathbreaking populist leftists who won elections across Latin America in the early years of the new millennium brought hope that democracy in a politically turbulent region had reached a new level of maturity.

They promised greater social inclusion and a more equitable distribution of wealth — goals that materialized, to varying degrees, for millions.

The Bolivian leader’s dramatic ouster from power on Sunday, after the military abandoned him amid a popular uprising set off by last month’s fraud-marred election, was an ignominious milestone for the era of the leftist leaders.

As Mr. Morales hastily flew out of the capital and went into hiding Sunday night amid rumors that his arrest was imminent, the debate over his downfall laid bare the region’s deep ideological polarization.

Mexico’s government and Argentina’s incoming president, Alberto Fernández, condemned the events in Bolivia as a coup. Others, including Carlos Mesa, the former Bolivian president who is vying to replace Mr. Morales, and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right leader, saw it as the triumph of peaceful resistance to a despot.

The starkly different takes reflect how tarred Mr. Morales’s legacy became as he bent democratic norms to stay in power longer than the two terms that Bolivia’s Constitution allows.

“If he had groomed a successor and accepted a transition of power, he would have been seen as a Nelson Mandela of South America,” said Mark Goodale, a professor of anthropology at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland who follows Bolivia closely. “He wouldn’t have just been a good leader for Bolivia, but one of the great political leaders in Latin America.”

Mr. Morales strode into the presidency with a sweeping mandate, having trounced his opponents in the 2005 election. He proposed profound changes to Bolivia’s power structure, and during his first term oversaw the drafting of a new Constitution that sought to erase the structural classism and racism that had long kept Bolivia’s Indigenous people, a majority in the nation, second-class citizens.

The president’s rhetoric was often radical, especially with respect to the United States, which he regarded as a scheming, colonialist actor that had held too much sway over Latin America. Mr. Morales, who as a coca leaf union leader was targeted and roughed up by American narcotics agents, took pleasure in kicking out the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2009.

But when it came to governing — especially on economic matters — he was a pragmatist. Instead of outright nationalizing state institutions as his ally and counterpart Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela, Mr. Morales cut better deals for the state and embraced market-friendly policies.

With inflation in check and robust foreign currency reserves on hand, the government spent billions over the years on subsidies and infrastructure, broadening access to health care and education.

“The standard of living for millions of people has improved dramatically,” said Calla Hummel, a political scientist at the University of Miami who has done research in Bolivia for several years. “People were able to stay in school longer, build and buy houses, buy cars, do things that hadn’t been possible before 2006.”

Over the years, Mr. Morales consolidated power by traveling around the country at a frenetic pace to break bread with union chiefs, entrepreneurs and social movement leaders. He was a master at shoring up support at the grass-roots level by steering government funds to key areas and at outsmarting rivals.

Those skills, said Mr. Goodale, reflect the way Mr. Morales learned to wield power in the rough-and-tumble realm of coca union leaders.

“It involves a Machiavellian style of power,” he said. “It requires a lot of self-interested moves and stabbing people in the back when it becomes necessary.”

As some of his leftist contemporaries departed from power, some with legacies tarred by allegations of corruption, Mr. Morales dug in, disdainful of the two-term limit imposed by the Constitution.

Those authoritarian tendencies did not come as a surprise to people who had watched Mr. Morales’s rise closely. As early as 2009, he had made clear that the presidential palace was not going to change hands anytime soon.

“We are not just tenants, we have recovered what is rightfully ours, brothers and sisters,” he declared at the time during a speech. “This will be forever.”

Mr. Morales seemed to feel strongly that the changes he set in motion required him to stay at the helm of the government.

In 2016, when Mr. Morales was campaigning for a referendum that sought to do away with term limits, I asked to interview him in La Paz. Instead of agreeing to a traditional interview, the president asked that I spend an entire day trailing him — an offer he has often extended to foreign journalists.

I was struck by two things: his vanity and the extent to which the government had turned Mr. Morales into a brand. The first event of the day was a predawn workout in a police gym, during which the grunting president displayed his stamina and strength for a mystified audience of one.

Later in the day, as we flew to a couple of cities, Mr. Morales’s image was everywhere: stamped on murals in a new subsidized housing complex, on airport billboards and even on each cable car of La Paz’s futuristic public transportation system.

The first clear sign that Bolivians were growing weary of Mr. Morales came when he narrowly lost the term limits vote, his first electoral defeat as president.

Mr. Morales had struggled to persuade voters in large part because of a corruption scandal that broke days before the referendum. It involved a former girlfriend of the president who had used her access to the government to help a Chinese firm get contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The way that case was handed — the former girlfriend was prosecuted but no one from the government took responsibility for enabling her — was telling about a justice system that on Mr. Morales’s watch had become opaque, and was often used to punish government critics.

At first, after the term-limit defeat, Mr. Morales said he would respect the will of voters and step down. But the following year he found a workaround: The Constitutional Court, which was packed by loyalists, ruled that term limits infringed on human rights.

That decision angered many Bolivians. As Mr. Morales campaigned, it became clear that even Indigenous communities that had once revered him had come to conclude that it was time for the president to go.

Mr. Morales was declared the winner in the Oct. 20 vote, albeit by a tighter margin than in any presidential election since 2005. But his victory set off a firestorm of protests and violent clashes amid mounting evidence of electoral irregularities.

As the unrest spread, and the legitimacy of his victory became impossible to defend, Mr. Morales on Sunday called for a new vote. But it was too little too late. With much of the police force in open revolt, the military chiefs on Sunday urged Mr. Morales to resign.

Ms. Hummel said the sequence of events did not necessarily constitute a coup, considering that the military seems uninterested in taking control of the country. “We’re seeing people taking to the streets and demanding better governance, which is potentially hopeful,” she said.

But Bolivia is at a perilous crossroads following a rare 14-year stretch of political and economic stability.

“I think it’s a very dangerous power vacuum,” Ms. Hummel said. “How do we move on from the Morales era, which was very stable and predictable, to something else — and what is that going to be?”





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