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
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