The rise and fall of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia

November 14, 2019 3:19 PM

Despite forming 60% of the population, the indigenous were kept away from political and economic power for the last five hundred years by the minority white elite who are less than 15% of the country.

Evo Morales, bolivia, bolivia president, bolivia politics, defence newsBolivia’s President Evo Morales annouces his resignation in Lauca N, Cochabamba, Bolivia November 10, 2019 in this still image taken from Bolivian Government TV. (Reuters)

By R. Viswanathan

Evo Morales was elected as the first-ever native Indian President of Bolivia in 2006. He is from the indigenous Aymara community. Despite forming 60% of the population, the indigenous were kept away from political and economic power for the last five hundred years by the minority white elite who are less than 15% of the country. So it was a historic turning point in Bolivia. Morales donned the red tunic of indigenous priests and addressed Bolivians from an ancient temple in Tiwanaku, promising to roll back five centuries of discrimination and colonization.

Obviously, the first priority of President Morales was to uplift the Indians from poverty and empower them politically. He changed the constitution of the country in 2009. He cried as he unveiled the new constitution that was inclusive of the indigenous and poor: “Here begins the new Bolivia,” he said. This was also an inspiration for the forty million indigenous people of Latin America who remain mostly poor and marginalized.

Morales was elected with 64% votes in 2009 under the new constitution. He was reelected in 2014 with over 60% of the votes as against his rival’s 25%. His party Movement for Socialism (MAS) got more than two-thirds majority in the Congress in 2014

Morales was in power for the last fourteen years. This was an unprecedentedly long period of political stability in Bolivia which had seen many coups in the past. Before Morales came to power in 2006, there were five presidents in five years. Bolivia has never had such a long period of political stability and economic growth as it has experienced under President Morales.

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With his socialist agenda, Morales reduced poverty and brought millions of people into the middle class. Bolivia was the most successful in Latin America in poverty reduction. The per capita income of the people tripled to over 3300 dollars in 2018. He built schools, hospitals, and infrastructure in the indigenous areas.

He nationalized the oil and gas and other sectors from which he increased state revenue. He got a better price for the gas exported to Brazil and he even fought with his idol President Lula for higher prices. The increased revenue was plowed into welfare projects.

Although he uses radical leftist rhetoric, Morales had managed the economy prudently and pragmatically. He had financed his pro-poor programmes with the increase in revenue from exports, taxes and better financial management. He had ensured fiscal surplus every year since 2006. The GDP of Bolivia has grown an average of five percent during his long 14 years of rule. Bolivia used to have hyperinflation in five digits. He successfully tamed the inflation and brought it in a single digit. He also stabilized the currency, which had seen devaluation of several thousand percents in the past. He brought down external debt to manageable levels.

Morales led a simple and austere life without any personal ostentation. He was free from corruption and did not acquire personal wealth or indulge in any luxuries. He continued as a bachelor and dedicated most of his time for the country, except for his indulgence in playing football and occasional girlfriends.

Morales was born in a poor peasant family which was growing coca leaves. He came to political limelight as a trade union leader of the coca leaf growers and organizer of protests against the neoliberal policies of the governments in which private water and utilities increasing the cost of living for the poor.

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After having been in power for such a long period of 14 years, Morales should have stood down in the 2019 elections, as mandated by the term limit imposed by his own new constitution. This would have safeguarded his great legacy of achievements as the first indigenous president who transformed the country.

But the power went to his head and Morales started believing that he was indispensable. He did not groom a successor. He held a referendum in 2016 seeking approval for another term. This was rejected by the people. But he went to the constitutional court and got from friendly judges a verdict approving his reelection, on the spurious ground of his personal human rights. This shocked his own supporters, besides alerting the opposition.

Morales made his worst mistake by indulging in the manipulation of the results of October 20, 2019. The live counting and telecast were shut down abruptly and mysteriously for almost 24 hours when the margin between Morales and his nearest rival Carlos Mesa was narrowing. The next day, counting was resumed and it was announced that Morales won with more than ten percent difference in votes. This was a plain fraud. When the opposition and external election observers questioned, Morales agreed to an audit and later to holding a new election. But it was too late. Seeing the best opportunity to bring down Morales, the opposition resorted to protests and clashed with his supporters. The military and police took the side of the protestors and turned against him. Fearing for his personal safety, he took the offer of Mexico for asylum and left the country.

Many Leftist leaders and countries have expressed moral support for Morales and described his exit as the result of a coup and right-wing conspiracy against the Left. It is true that the military had asked him to step down. But this was done at the very last stage when Morales had already dug his own grave. It was not a simple one time mistake. Morales had been making deliberate mistakes one after another since the failure of his Referendum in 2016 to unlawfully extend his term and undermine democracy. This is unpardonable.

Morales deserved a better end after such a glorious legacy. But he is the one responsible for his fate with a hundred percent responsibility. Morales failed to obey the rules of democracy, which gave him the opportunity to come to power in the first place. He should have respected the constitutional term limit and left after his term as most Presidents do it routinely in Latin America. Morales thought he could also get away with his crime like President Maduro, late President Chavez and President Ortega of Nicaragua who have vitiated democracy by perpetuating their regimes.

This is not the end for Bolivia, which has seen a much bigger political and economic crisis before Morales. 36 of the 83 governments in the past had lasted a year or less. The country can move on by holding the next elections and choosing another leader. The economy of the country is in fairly good shape. Although Morales failed to groom a successor, he has empowered the masses and inspired them with the message that they could use their democratic power to elect and change governments to make the country better. There are a number of young grass root indigenous leaders who could emerge in the future, like Morales.

Morales should have remembered the fate of the Great Liberator, Simon Bolivar, after whom Bolivia has been named. The Liberator had paid the same price as Morales and was sent into exile when he started putting himself above democracy.

(Author is a Latin America expert and former ambassador in the region. Views are personal.)

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