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In the days since Evo Morales stepped down as president of Bolivia and fled to Mexico, two starkly divergent accounts of his downfall have emerged among observers around the world. In one, Morales is the victim of a brazen right-wing coup, the latest in a long line of progressive Latin American leaders toppled by reactionary forces. In another, Morales had turned increasingly autocratic, clinging to power with little regard for checks and balances, and his ouster was a rare victory for democracy and the rule of law at a time when authoritarianism is on the upswing.
Neither narrative captures the whole story, yet both contain a kernel of truth. Morales and his allies all too often used their popularity as license to concentrate political power and marginalize opponents, and in so doing laid the groundwork for his ultimate downfall. Yet in his nearly 14 years in power, Morales also oversaw social and economic reforms that vastly reduced inequality and gave countless Bolivians a new voice and influence over how the country was run—a remarkable legacy of social transformation that any future government should work to preserve.
The danger today is that a post-Morales government will focus not on restoring the democratic principles that had eroded under his rule but on rolling back the inclusive policies that were the hallmark of his presidency. Indeed, the self-appointed interim government that succeeded Morales, led by one-time Senator Jeanine Áñez and a bevy of staunch right-wing figures, is already taking steps in this direction, with cabinet members seeking to discredit the former president and threatening to arrest “seditious” Morales supporters and journalists. Yet for all his missteps, Morales retains considerable popular support, and any outright attempt to undo his legacy risks sending the country down an uncertain and perilous road to prolonged political conflict and violence.
Morales’s sudden exit—and the turmoil that followed—laid bare Bolivia’s profound social and political divisions. Still, the episode took many observers by surprise. When the results of the country’s general election came in on October 20, Morales, at the time Latin America’s longest-serving incumbent, appeared to be headed for a fourth term in office. Yet almost immediately, widespread allegations of electoral fraud overshadowed his victory. Protests and pitched street battles broke out in La Paz, paralyzing the capital. A defiant Morales held out for three weeks. But on November 10, he resigned after pressure from the army chief, who publicly “suggested” his resignation. Two days later, he fled to Mexico.
Morales’s dramatic ouster bookended nearly 14 years of rule that utterly transformed Bolivia. His unlikely rise alone made history. He had been a coca grower, then a union chief, before he ascended to the helm of the Movement for Socialism, or MAS—a party he helped form in the mid-1990s. Enormous indigenous social protest movements roiled Bolivia during that period. The MAS, with Morales in charge, swelled in size by bundling the political energy behind those movements.
Morales’s unlikely rise alone made history.
In the span of just a few years, mass mobilization toppled two presidents, swept aside traditional parties, challenged Bolivia’s free market approach to development (long touted as a model for the region), and, in 2005, carried Morales to the presidency with the largest vote share in the country’s democratic history. After nearly five centuries of colonialism and white-minority rule, the Morales government was the first to represent and empower the country’s indigenous majority. By 2009, at the height of its power, the MAS was the country’s only party with truly national reach.
Morales’s government was a prominent member of Latin America’s “left turn” in the first decade of this century, when a dozen countries constituting two-thirds of the region’s populations elected left-of-center governments. But the Bolivian case differed in several respects. The MAS had stronger and deeper roots in social movements than its regional counterparts, and it proved much more effective at ushering leaders from those movements—many of them indigenous—into positions of power in the state, some as members of parliament, others as officials at national and local levels. In the past, only those with high levels of formal education could become state officials or members of the civil service. That system, which for decades had kept power safely out of reach of the less privileged, now came to an end. From peasant movements to a wide array of civic networks, groups that had previously had little say over how the country was run saw their power and influence rise.
Bolivia also performed well economically, in marked contrast to countries such as Argentina, where leftist rule quickly became a strain on public finances, or Venezuela, where it culminated in economic catastrophe. Unlike the leaders of those countries, Morales combined soaring rhetoric about nationalization with moderate policies. He welcomed foreign investors in Bolivia’s lucrative mining and hydrocarbon sectors while increasing the taxes they paid, producing steady economic growth, low inflation, and an extraordinary increase in state revenues. The government spent this money on basic infrastructure, education, health, and, to a lesser extent, social security. The new taxes also helped finance social programs that allowed Bolivia to reduce income inequality more dramatically than any country in the region. Such is the staying power of these social policies that Carlos Mesa, Morales’s main challenger in the 2019 election, promised to maintain them if elected.
Even amid all this progress, early warning signs indicated trouble on the political front. Bolivia’s social and economic successes did not translate into strengthened democratic institutions. From early in his tenure, Morales showed autocratic tendencies that over time led to abuses of power. The MAS manipulated the courts to rule in its favor by appointing loyalists, intimidated political opponents, and betrayed a lack of respect for institutional checks and balances. The trend intensified after 2009, when the party won an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, allowing it to consolidate its power.
Morales’s refusal to pass the torch may have doomed his leadership.
Morales’s personalistic and authoritarian proclivities gradually insulated the MAS from the base of organizers and social movements that had propelled the party to power and had, at times, served as a partial check on presidential authority. The more centralized the party became, the less likely new leaders were to emerge and carry the mantle forward. In 2014, the MAS declared Morales to be “indispensable” and announced that it would not groom a new party leader. Rather, Morales would serve, seemingly, in perpetuity: in 2016, the government held a referendum to remove presidential term limits. The referendum failed, leading Morales to complain that he had a “human right” to run for office indefinitely. The country’s highest court, dominated by Morales’s allies, supported his reasoning in a controversial ruling the following year. In essence, Morales had succumbed to what might be termed the “autocratic temptation”—the illusion that he not only spoke and acted on behalf of the entire people but could do so forever. The result was a leadership untethered from any mechanisms of accountability and insulated from feedback that could provide a counterweight to its power.
The referendum debacle severely undermined Morales’s democratic legitimacy, sharply polarized Bolivian politics, and revitalized a conservative opposition that for years had been too fractious to pose a serious electoral threat. Strong opposition movements emerged in some former bastions of support, such as Potosí, and some formerly staunch MAS allies, including the country’s biggest trade union confederation and smaller indigenous groups, even switched to the opposition. The episode also revitalized opposition to Morales among economic elites in the city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s economic powerhouse, which helps explain the MAS’s electoral underperformance in that crucial region in the October 20 election. The city has since become a crucial base of support for the right-wing interim government.
Morales’s refusal to pass the torch may have doomed his leadership. Nonetheless, the successes of his tenure ensure that the MAS remains the country’s largest party by far and will likely remain a strong contender for years to come. Even if the party today lacks the mobilizing power it once had and might fracture into smaller splinter groups, any effort to sideline it from Bolivia’s political system, and any effort to return to the exclusionary politics of the pre-MAS days, is certain to produce a furious reaction from well-organized popular movements determined to defend what they gained in the years under Morales.
Yet regression is what may lie in store. Áñez’s interim government—purportedly a caretaker cabinet tasked with organizing new elections—seems intent on discrediting not just Morales but the whole of his party as legitimate actors in Bolivian politics. Áñez has threatened to call new elections via presidential decree, a step that would give her broad leeway to bar MAS candidates from running. Arturo Murillo, the iron-fisted new interior minister, has vowed to “hunt down” members of the old government. In a display of deep racial animosity, the government has cracked down on indigenous pro-Morales protesters using live ammunition and has gone so far as to preemptively exempt the military from criminal responsibility for any use of force against protesters. Negotiations between elements of the MAS and the Áñez government are underway, but the space for meaningful dialogue appears extremely narrow, and there are few potential mediators among nations and organizations in the region that might help hold things together.
Instead, Bolivian politics is being fought in the streets and could become an impossible game in which forming stable governments is less and less feasible. However this turbulent era ends, the Morales presidency will stand as a lesson for governments in the region—both on the opportunities for lasting reform and on the pitfalls of autocratic temptations.
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