Bolivia’s Tarnished Savior

Moises Saman/ Magnum Photos  Evo Morales, Mexico City, November 2019
Moises Saman/ Magnum Photos. Evo Morales, Mexico City, November 2019

Flying over the Andes in the dead of night, you know you’ve reached Bolivia because towns and villages become visible: neat crosshatches of light, every street illuminated. The terminal at El Alto International Airport may not have the best design or the most punctilious construction standards, but in the freezing predawn of this high plateau—the Andean altiplano—one could weep with gratitude that it is heated. Thirty years ago El Alto was not a city but a straggle of unpaved, unlit streets spreading out from a ramshackle improvisation of piled-up luggage and technology-free checkpoints. Visitors arriving to the shock of 13,000 feet above sea level gasped for air, stumbled into a taxi, and rattled their way down a pitted, hairpin road to the capital, La Paz.

El Alto today represents everything that the government of Evo Morales—known by absolutely all his countrymen as el Evo—achieved during its almost fourteen years in power, from 2006 to 2019. It is Bolivia’s second-largest city, and from the new six-lane highway into La Paz you can admire one of the most visible signs of the transformation: the crisscrossing cable cars of the capital’s spanking-new airborne transportation system, baptized Mi teleférico. There are eight lines with 1,400 gondolas serving thirty-seven stations, all built in barely eight years. Three of the lines swoop down from El Alto to La Paz, a city of 800,000 set in a treeless, arid canyon. A bus commute could eat a couple of hours of a worker’s day; a teleférico ride takes minutes.

But in important ways, El Alto itself has hardly changed since December 2005, when Alteños, along with a plurality of other Bolivians, voted overwhelmingly to elect Evo as Bolivia’s first indigenous president since independence in 1825. Sidewalk vendors still sell everything from llama fetuses to fake diamond–covered cellphone cases. Water remains scarce. Traffic remains a nightmare. The older indigenous women, or cholas, still dress in traditional layered skirts and bowler hats. They are Aymara, descended from the inhabitants of the southernmost part of the Inca empire, and although a significant percentage of El Alto’s nearly one million people are Quechua (another Andean ethnic group), mestizo, or even Chinese, this is an Aymara city in its identity, habits, and language—the only indigenous city that comes to mind in all the Americas—and it is passionately pro-Evo, a fellow Aymara.

Yet when he ran for a constitutionally questionable fourth term in 2019 and claimed a possibly fraudulent victory, some of the fiercest battles between pro-Evo Aymaras and anti-Evo Aymara evangelical Christians took place here, while hundreds of other protests throughout Bolivia demanded, day after day, that he resign. Three weeks later, with the country ready to burst into civil war, he boarded a plane bound for Mexico.

New elections were held last month, and two contradictory things happened: the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party triumphed at the polls, but Evo—the former president who defined the party, transformed his impoverished country, and is regarded by so many, not least himself, as Bolivia’s savior—was gently removed from influence. For the immediate future, at least, he will not be returning to power.

Juan Evo Morales Ayma was born in 1959 in the remote highland region of Orinoca, so poor that, as he told everyone during his first presidential campaign, he dreamed of being rich enough to ride in a bus and throw sucked orange halves carelessly out the window, as he saw passengers do when he walked into town with his father. When he was nineteen, fresh out of military service and ambitious, he and his family realized there was no future in the arid altiplano. They joined a growing stream of highlanders moving down to the steaming, fertile lowland strip of territory called the Chapare to farm coca leaf, which was being bought for stacks of money by flashy foreigners in a hurry. A traditional and legal Andean crop with religious associations, coca is chewed by Bolivian campesinos—poor farmers—as a mild stimulant and was used as an ingredient in Coca-Cola until well into the 1990s. But a ton of leaves can also be refined into about two pounds of cocaine base paste. In the 1980s, at the height of the United States’ reckless affair with coke, farmers in the Chapare were able to earn as much as $14,000 a year, for them a staggering amount.

It was then that Evo joined a growing union movement among the coca farmers as sports secretary (he is a soccer fanatic), eventually becoming the combative head of the federation of the six coca-growing unions in the Chapare. Like many of his union brothers, he saw himself first as a campesino, not an Aymara, but always as a union militant. Those were tough times: Washington fantasized that it could eliminate the cocaine trade—run mostly by Colombian smugglers and US distributors—by persuading a succession of hard-line, right-wing rulers to fight a proxy war against coca growers. US-trained Bolivian special forces were helicoptered into the Chapare, men were killed, women were abused, farmers’ houses were burned down, and Evo emerged from those years of confrontation with a vaguely Marxist, fiercely anti-US view of the world.

Together with other campesino leaders and leftist sympathizers, he took over the MAS—then a sketchy, semifascist party—in 1998 and was elected to Congress the next year. As a one-term congressman, Evo fought for the right of Chapare campesinos to grow coca. (Coca farming for local consumption as tea or leaves to chew remains unrestricted elsewhere in Bolivia.) Most importantly, he led violent street confrontations that led to the resignations of two successive presidents, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and his vice-president and successor, Carlos Mesa, in 2005.

Before his successful 2005 run for the presidency, immediately following Mesa’s overthrow, Evo appears to have realized that he could not win a national election as a poor, coca-growing, brawling, radical union leader. With somewhere near half of the population identifying with one of Bolivia’s indigenous communities, he gradually oriented his message toward them. Back then I heard a flower-wreathed Evo open a rally in Cochabamba with a couple of phrases in what may have been Quechua, and he referred as often as possible to the pachamama, the bountiful Andean earth mother. He talked about the Qullasuyu—the southeasternmost corner of the Inca empire, which mostly overlaps with modern-day Bolivia. At his rallies, the wiphala—a multicolored flag that stood for racial tolerance, equal rights, and the Qullasuyu—was increasingly spotted.

Evo’s opponents on the right mocked his indigenous origins, while indigenous leaders who didn’t like him pointed out that he had never worn native dress and could barely speak Aymara. But his change of image meant a great deal to indigenous voters and, eventually, to him. “I don’t consider myself the first indigenous president,” he told the journalist Raúl Peñaranda:

I consider myself the first union President. But later, reviewing things, coming as I do from an ayllu [traditional community] in Orinoca, where there…is still no private property even today, I consider myself indigenous.

Particularly during the first decade of his presidency, Evo and his vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, radically transformed Bolivia. (Despite his nonindigenous origins, García Linera, pale-skinned and professorial, was in 1986 the cofounder of an indigenous-rights guerrilla organization and eventually spent five years in jail.) In short order Evo delivered on a promise to bring the indigenous population to the forefront of the nation’s politics. He called a modernizing constitutional convention at which slightly more than half the delegates were from the MAS, and mostly indigenous. About a third of the delegates were women, in the short skirts and flat straw hats of the lowland Quechua or the bowler hats and long layered skirts of the Aymara. In the luminous courtyard of a colonial building in Sucre where the convention was being held, I talked to many of those women as they went from one meeting room to another, brimming with ideas and filled with the seriousness of their task.

The new constitution, enacted in 2009, declared clean drinking water and sewage systems a universal right, granted indigenous communities a wide range of authority in their territories, and guaranteed a minimum number of congressional seats for native representatives. Thanks to high international prices for the country’s main export, natural gas—averaging $8 per thousand cubic feet—the economy purred along at nearly 5 percent yearly growth, and the government had room to experiment and innovate during its first ten years in power. (“I governed with gas at $1.70,” Evo’s predecessor Carlos Mesa says bitterly and often.) For a few months, at least, the minister of justice was a Quechua domestic worker who had come up through the ranks of the MAS organizing other women like her. In Bolivia, where the brutal oppression of conquest was still felt by the indigenous peoples, their newfound visibility and the constitutional reforms brought a great healing shift in racial relations. This was fiercely resisted by fearful whites and mestizos, and yet, keeping in mind that Bolivia once had five presidents in a single year, businessmen were grateful for the new stability.

It was enough to make the flaws and brutalities of Evo’s rule seem almost irrelevant, almost tolerable. There was, for example, the persecution of journalists and the media. The Evo government bought up newspapers and television stations and forced out critical journalists. For all its proclaimed indigenous identity, it clashed repeatedly with native groups, particularly in the tropical lowlands, where the decision to allow Shell Oil and Brazil’s Petrobras into a forest reserve led to months of confrontation with the inhabitants.

And there was Evo’s decision to increase the amount of land that settlers were allowed to clear in the tropical lowlands using the traditional and more discreet slash-and-burn method. The new settlers were mostly impoverished highlanders who had never seen a forest or grasslands and had no idea how to clear land with fire. As a result, fires raged for nearly two months last year across the dry-forest Chiquitania region, leading to the irreparable loss of some eight thousand square miles of virgin forest, and the destruction of fauna. (This year, fires have continued to burn through an even wider swath of the same territory.)

There were also monumental levels of corruption, like the MAS senator who received $800,000 for public works in a nonexistent town, Evo’s refusal to negotiate with his congressional opposition, and his habit of harassing his opponents with trumped-up charges, keeping them busy in the courts. Then there was his grotesque side: his repeated references to his sexual prowess, for example. (He likes to joke that nine months after he visits a village, all the women give birth, proof of his slogan “Evo Delivers.”) The stale sexism, anti-environmental policies, corruption, and love of power for power’s sake may have left voters and members of his own party—particularly the younger ones—feeling that despite the tremendous excitement of Evo’s early, innovative years in office, he was starting to look like the old-fashioned semidictators with whom Bolivians were already too familiar.

In 2016 Evo called a referendum on whether he should be allowed to run for office a fourth time. He lost that vote by a narrow margin and promised to abide by it. Nevertheless, in 2017 the Electoral Tribunal, a supposedly independent body heavily controlled by the party in power, ruled that it would be a violation of Evo’s “human rights” to restrict his ability to run for office. “I don’t want to, but I must do it for my people,” a blushing Evo allowed. If he won the October 2019 elections, he promised, he would stay in office only through 2025.

The vote was held last year on October 20. The top contenders were Evo and Mesa, a journalist and historian by profession and a temperate politician who seems to drag himself reluctantly to each election, but runs anyway. At 7:40 PM, with nearly 85 percent of the vote counted, Evo had 45.28 percent and Mesa 38.16 percent. This was troubling to the president and exhilarating to his opponents: under Bolivian law, when there is less than a ten-point difference between the top two candidates, a runoff must be held. Everyone understood that in a runoff, with all the opposition parties joining forces behind Mesa, Evo would lose. But no celebration was held, because before the next announcement of preliminary results, vote-counting was suspended. It wasn’t until 6:30 PM the following day that another result was announced. It gave Evo an advantage of 10.14 points over Mesa.

It’s entirely possible that Evo won by that margin, or he may have won by an even larger one. But by temporarily shutting down the count, he erased his credibility. On the evening of October 21, with no warning, altiplano and lowland whites by the thousands, university students, doctors, Alteño merchants, and, everywhere, evangelical Christians who proclaimed that Evo had brought Satan into the government palace came out to prevent him from taking office.

For the next three weeks, anti-Evo demonstrators jammed the streets and blocked traffic on the highways, demanding that he step down. It was astonishing even to them: the marches, the violent brawls between pro- and anti-Evo protesters, the rioting that terrorized what is normally not a terribly violent country, the electrifying energy of normally apathetic high school and university students staging around-the-clock watches at barricades all over La Paz. There had never been such an expression of national outrage in Bolivia, cutting across social, regional, and ethnic divisions.

By November 8 a cascade of MAS governors, senators, and cabinet members had resigned, and Evo’s alliance with the armed and security forces strained and then snapped. Police were filmed that day in La Paz tearing the wiphala symbol from their uniforms, and elsewhere they joined the demonstrators.

On November 9 rebellious crowds reduced Evo to governing, or attempting to, from the presidential airport hangar at El Alto. That afternoon General Williams Kaliman, head of the armed forces and a crucial Evo ally, announced that the army would “never confront the people we owe ourselves to,” effectively cutting his ties to the president. At 3:00 AM on November 10, the Organization of American States’ electoral monitors released a long-awaited report listing the election’s irregularities, including the use of “hidden” servers that could be used to hack the vote-counting system.

That morning, the government asked the opposition if the head of the Senate, the MAS member Adriana Salvatierra, who was next in the line of succession, would be an acceptable replacement if Evo resigned. After Salvatierra was rejected, it wasn’t clear who could replace him. (Everyone understood that Vice President García Linera would go wherever his boss did.) Evo offered to call new elections, but it was too late. Around noon the largest union confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana, broke ranks with the government and asked the president to resign.

At 3:45 PM, General Kaliman “suggested” that Evo step down, but by then he was already boarding a plane to his home base in the Chapare, in the company of García Linera. Once there, a haggard Evo announced that he was resigning in the name of peace. A “civic, political, and police coup” was responsible for his defeat, he said. Curiously, he did not include the armed forces among the golpistas. Two days later a Mexican Air Force plane sent by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador flew him into exile.

Whether the events leading to Evo’s flight to Mexico constituted a coup is a subject of some debate, but generally coups are designed not only to remove rulers but also to replace them. That was not the case this time. As night fell on November 10, Bolivians looked around their unruly, leaderless country and wondered what could possibly happen next.

That was when a weeping and mostly unknown senator, Jeanine Áñez, took hold of a microphone and, to general surprise, declared, between sobs, that she was the second vice-president of the Senate and therefore next in the line of succession, and she would be in charge during a transition period and would call for new presidential elections. And she would not consider running for the job herself. In the following days she was discovered to be a deeply religious and even more deeply conservative former television presenter from the impoverished department of Beni. She was also a racist who tweeted about Evo, “Poor indio! Grabbing on to power!” and about Aymara New Year rituals, “Satanics! No one replaces God!” She marched to her inauguration holding aloft an enormous Bible, proclaiming that “God has let the Bible return to the national palace.”

But there was chaos for days: nationwide, the police refused to report back for duty, pro- and anti-Evo demonstrators remained locked in raging confrontations in El Alto, the MAS was utterly demoralized, and at least nineteen more people were killed by army and security forces. Faced with the impending meltdown of the country, the remaining MAS leadership and its opposition brokered a political agreement, and by late November the streets were quiet once more. Áñez formed a new government, scheduled elections for May 3, acquired a team of advisers, a few pantsuits, and softer makeup, and announced her candidacy for the presidency.

Devastating numbers of Covid-19 cases forced the election to be postponed twice. After months of mismanagement, Áñez withdrew from the race in September. The MAS nominated Luis Arce Catacora, Evo’s longtime minister of the economy.

An unlikely candidate, Arce nevertheless won the election, in a comeback triumph for his party and for Evo. Seen from a certain perspective, one could credit Arce with many of the great achievements of the Evo era. He put an end to the recurrent cycles of hyperinflation that had often made daily life in the country a surrealist challenge. In contrast to Evo, with his strong indigenous features and elegant alpaca jackets trimmed with pre-Hispanic motifs, Arce has an unmemorable appearance and private life—married, three kids, no scandals. Always discreetly in the background, he engineered the economy that financed Bolivia’s transformation. Per capita income tripled and a new indigenous middle class was born. The number of Bolivians in extreme poverty shrank from 38 to 16 percent of the population. Roads were built in an all but roadless country. Arce owes the bounty that enabled these changes to the steep rise in the price of natural gas, of course, but he could have chosen to spend it differently. There will be no such good times for President Arce: the collapse of fuel prices and the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Bolivia with devastating force, have seen to that.

Evo, who idolized the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, had plenty of spare cash to spend on Chávez-like projects—a multimillion-dollar museum of Evo in the remote hamlet where he was born, an expensive presidential jet—and certain sectors of the MAS got away with bare-faced theft, but by and large Arce conducted the economy for the benefit of the vast majority of Bolivians. That, and his nondescript persona, made him a soothing choice for the electorate after a year of ceaseless trouble.

For the indigenous base of the MAS, this mestizo needed only one qualification: he was Evo’s choice. This makes it all the more remarkable that even as he was celebrating victory in his understated way, Arce stressed—not just once or twice—that neither Evo nor any member of his cabinet would have a position in the new government. “They have finished their cycle,” he told an interviewer. “Now we need renovation.” Other pro-renovation leaders of the MAS chimed in. “We don’t believe that this is the right moment” for Evo to return to Bolivia, declared the MAS head of the Senate, Eva Copa, who added, in a tour de force of understatement, “He still has issues to resolve.”

Among those issues is Noemí Meneses, his pleasant, cheerful young companion in exile. She sends him passionate tweets and Evo appears to remain besotted with her, despite the fact that she is now all of nineteen and not a nubile fourteen, as she was when, according to all the evidence, they started their relationship. There are selfies and pictures of Evo and Noemí’s interlaced feet in matching socks, his calves big and hairy, hers half the size.

Evo’s affair with Noemí was no secret—Meneses has shown up in photographs and videos at rallies, ever ready with a towel to wipe her hero’s face after he finishes a soccer game, at the side of cabinet members, or on official visits to the Falkland Islands or Santa Cruz. But the short-lived Añez administration gleefully fastened on to the relationship, because it is evident and indefensible. Meneses has charged in a written statement that she and her sisters were kidnapped by the police in July, held for twenty-four hours and threatened, and forced to state that the photos the officers had obtained were of her and Evo. (The confession and dozens of her selfies were subsequently leaked to the press.)

She says that her romantic relationship with the former president began only on May 24 this year. There is, reportedly, at least one other young woman who was involved with Evo and bore him a child at the age of sixteen. The girls give new meaning to his repeated wish to retire with a plot of land, a charango, or Andean guitar, and a quinceañera, or fifteen-year-old girl. It isn’t a joke.

Most legal charges filed by the opposition against Evo—for terrorism, illegal enrichment, and pedophilia (that would be Meneses)—are being dropped. Consequently, he has announced his return to Bolivia on November 9, one day after Arce’s swearing-in. He will, he told reporters, repair to his old base, the Chapare, but only after a brief triumphal tour of three provinces, according to the latest announcement. Once home, he will devote himself to union activities and to breeding a species of tropical fish. It is hard to imagine that this new life will keep him happy for long.

For the moment, what is left of Evo’s rule is the party he built. It is impossible to overstate how tough the MAS militants are. They know how to bring down governments. Arce may be in charge of the country, but within his rambunctious party he represents a minority. He will have to take on the evangelicals, the right-wing separatists, white rabblerousers of wealthy Santa Cruz province, and Mesa’s middle-class and educated elite; reconcile with the military and police; and, perhaps most difficult of all, unify the party under his command. He has some tough years ahead, but he won his election with five points more than Evo won his a year ago. Perhaps this time around, that 5 percent who didn’t vote for Evo in 2019 were expressing their admiration for Arce’s many virtues as minister of the economy. Or maybe it was just that, after all the turmoil and bloodshed, and after fourteen years of militant Evo, bland and boring looks pretty good.

Alma Guillermoprieto, who writes regularly for The New York Review about Latin America, is the author of Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, among other books. (December 2020)

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