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Finishing His Term Was Better Punishment For Evo Morales – And Bolivia's Democracy

Juan Karita
Former Bolivian President Evo Morales announcing his resignation on Sunday.


Usually the only thing more narrow-minded than a right-wing American wading into Latin American politics is a left-wing American wading into Latin American politics.

Which brings us to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When left-wing Bolivian President Evo Morales resigned this week and went into exile in Mexico, the left-wing New York congresswoman tweeted he was the victim of a coup – of a “violent power grab.”

Bolivia’s military high command did urge Morales to step down. But whether that constitutes a brutal coup d’état is very debatable. If leftists like Ocasio-Cortez want to be taken more seriously in that debate, they might – as her tweets utterly refuse to do – consider how brazenly Morales tried to trash Bolivia’s democracy long before the generals stepped in. How he used his lapdog supreme court to pervert the country’s constitution and allow him to run for president for the rest of his life. Or how his lapdog electoral tribunal allegedly tried to steal last month’s election for him.

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In fact, I think Morales deserved a fate more damaging to his ego than resignation and exile. In reality, those outcomes are letting him play the heroic people’s martyr instead of the messianic socialist autocrat he really is. And this is where I will join the likes of Ocasio-Cortez and take Bolivia’s military to task – but not for the knee-jerk liberal reasons she and other Evo-adorers are using.

My real beef with Bolivia’s armed forces commander, General Williams Kaliman, is less about coup-mongering than about common sense. If Kaliman was really desirous to end Bolivia’s violent, post-election street protests and “restore peace and stability,” as he said, he wouldn’t have asked Morales to resign. That's only left a power vacuum and ignited more chaos. Instead, he would have told Morales to stay, finish his term and peacefully and constitutionally hand the presidency to the winner of a new and legitimate election he can't run in.

Hey AOC: Constitutionally transferring power to the winner of a legitimate election – THAT would have been the most humiliating outcome for Evo, being forced to play an ordinary democratic schmo instead of the people's indispensable demigod.

That would have been the most humiliating ending for Evo. Being forced to play an ordinary democratic schmo, having to perform ordinary democratic schmo acts like responsible transfer of power – instead of playing the indispensable demigod he came to believe his 2005 election as Bolivia’s first indigenous president made him.

I revere what Morales achieved 14 years ago. I covered his campaign, interviewed him on the stump. I felt the emotional gravitas watching an Aymara Indian don the presidential sash in a country that had, from the moment Pizarro invaded the Andes five centuries ago, treated its indigenous citizens like subhuman serfs.

I applauded Morales' empowerment of those citizens; I appreciated how his nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas resources helped raise so many of them out of poverty.

But I was always wary of Evo’s savior complex. I worried he forgot the most important thing about his historic election – that it heralded not just indigenous power but democratic power, of institutional, constitutional rule of law in a poor, tyrant-plagued corner of a continent still struggling to establish it.


I remember one conversation with him in 2006 when he suggested a difference between the sort of indigenous democracy he represented – a “more communal, consensus-oriented democracy,” as he put it – and the conventional democracy Americans like me understood. I’d already heard that “different democracies” bombast years before from Mexico’s one-party dictatorship. So “indigenous democracy” in Morales’ telling just sounded like a euphemism for “Evo gets to be Bolivia’s beloved supreme leader for as long as he wants.”

Credit Juan Karita / AP
Anti-Morales protesters celebrate his resignation in La Paz on Sunday.

Influenced by his mentor, left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez – who used the euphemism “participatory democracy” to rationalize his own lifetime rule before he died in 2013 – Morales confirmed those fears. Chávez thumbed his nose at a popular referendum that reaffirmed presidential term limits; Morales did the same in Bolivia. In one of the most laughable rulings in the history of jurisprudence, he even had his loyal supreme court declare two years ago that term limits were a violation of his human rights.

So he ran again last month – and, when it looked like he wasn’t getting enough votes to avoid a runoff election, he had his loyal electoral tribunal shut down the vote-tallying computers. When they were booted back up – presto! – they showed a first-round victory for Evo.

He was shocked, shocked! to see even his indigenous supporters and his security forces protest the fraud. American leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were genuinely stunned, too. Or maybe they just couldn’t fit the truth about Morales into a 140-character tweet.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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