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Opinion: O, How Bolivia's Mighty Morales Has Fallen

Bolivia's former president, Evo Morales, speaks at the Mexican Journalists Club, in Mexico City, on Nov. 27.
Claudio Cruz
AFP via Getty Images
Bolivia's former president, Evo Morales, speaks at the Mexican Journalists Club, in Mexico City, on Nov. 27.

Raúl Peñaranda is a Bolivian journalist, former Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard University and author of a book on former President Evo Morales' efforts to control the media in Bolivia. Peñaranda is the editor of the news site Brújula Digital.

He was the most important Bolivian leader of the last half-century. From coca grower, Evo Morales became the first Indigenous president in one of South America's poorest countries, a defender of marginalized people who improved the lives of the poor. He offered some stability in a country known for its instability. He won three elections, starting in 2006, and ruled for almost 14 years. He controlled the executive, legislature and judiciary, as well as the electoral authority, police and army.

But it turns out the Morales regime, which seemed like a rock-solid castle, was actually a house of cards. Suddenly last month, following 20 days of protests over allegations of election fraud, Morales resigned, fled the country and took asylum in Mexico.

Already one of the region's longest-serving leaders, Morales kept on reaching for more. On Oct. 20 he ran for a fourth term even after the public voted in a 2016 referendum that he shouldn't. The Constitutional Court, packed with his allies, overruled the referendum and authorized his reelection because it said — no joke — term limits would unfairly constrain his human rights.

On election night, the vote count was inexplicably suspended for nearly 24 hours. When it resumed, the trend had changed to avoid a runoff vote and gave Morales an outright victory. Experts from the Organization of American States said they could not confirm a first-round win because of irregularities.

This time, Morales drastically underestimated the rising anger of a society fed up with his excesses, abuses of power and authoritarian streak. Three weeks of massive protests and the loss of support of the military and the police led him and other top officials to resign on Nov. 10.

His successor for now, Jeanine Áñez, was sworn in as interim president on Nov. 12. The disputed vote was annulled and legislation was passed for a new election. It is not yet scheduled.

As one of her first measures in office, President Áñez signaled a rapprochement with the United States, after bilateral relations had strained under Morales, an ally of Venezuela. After more than a decade without a Bolivian ambassador in Washington, she named an envoy to the U.S.

She also broke off relations with Venezuela and expelled its embassy's personnel, accusing them of instigating violence and committing subversive acts.

Morales has been watching this all unfold from a residence provided to him by the Mexican government. He appears to be showing withdrawal from a nasty drug called power: He talks too much with the media, contradicting himself, bending the truth, angering easily and leveling baseless accusations. These symptoms will only worsen.

He has lost his caucus's backing in Congress. The leftist social movements that supported him struck a deal with the conservative interim government, which bars him from running in the next election. Morales supporters who had blocked roads in protest over his ouster have given up demonstrating.

His Movement Toward Socialism party, MAS, will participate in an election without Morales on the ballot for the first time in 18 years.

The election could come down to two main candidates: centrist former President Carlos Mesa, who came in second in October, and the conservative leader of the anti-Morales protests, Fernando Camacho, who makes frequent allusions to the Bible. Both support the administration of interim President Áñez, but they will quickly turn to adversaries as soon as campaigning begins.

Although there are no polls yet, it is not unthinkable Mesa and Camacho could go to a second round, leaving the MAS candidate in third place.

That would be very risky for Morales: A presidency and congressional majority of his rivals could lead to a new referendum on restoring term limits so that Morales would no longer be able to run.

This could all have been avoided if Morales had run in a fair election. If he had lost, he could have stepped down and become a ruthless opposition leader, capable of destabilizing any future president.

But fleeing the country left his authority severely weakened. For example, the same prosecutors and judges who once punished his adversaries have now begun to intimidate his allies. The government has said it is pressing charges against Morales for inciting violence and food shortages in the country.

Still, Morales' career is likely not over. He obtained, albeit through alleged fraud, 47% of the votes. He continues to be an icon for Bolivia's poor and working class — a hero for thousands, if not millions.

He is widely expected to try to run for president in 2025 — that is, if the law doesn't prevent him from doing so.

Either way, he will no longer be the titan he once was.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Raúl Peñaranda
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