From Exile, Evo Morales Fights to Maintain Influence in Bolivia

World Politics Review, 30.01.2020
Frida Ghitis, columnista de política internacional

A stencil of former President Evo Morales adorns a wall in La Paz, Bolivia, Dec. 6, 2019 (AP photo by Juan Karita).

When towering political figures are suddenly ousted from power, what role will they play in their country’s future? That question is at the heart of what is unfolding in Bolivia some 10 weeks after former President Evo Morales resigned at the “suggestion” of the military amid mass public protests over a disputed presidential election.

Morales, who fled into exile, first to Mexico and then Argentina, still insists he will lead the charge to topple the current, interim government. But he has faced a new and unexpected challenge to his political influence in Bolivia: an increasingly powerful current in his own party, the leftist Movement Toward Socialism—MAS, by its Spanish acronym—that favors a more moderate approach.

From the moment he fled Bolivia, it was clear that Morales had no intention of becoming a passive observer of the country he governed for 14 years. Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, Morales first won the presidency in 2006, as the so-called Pink Tide swept leftist leaders to power across Latin America. Bolstered by strong economic growth, Morales cemented his rule by following a now-familiar playbook—solidifying his hold on national institutions and staying in office past his initial, single term limit, thanks to a rewriting of the constitution in 2009. Then he ran for a third time, claiming his first term didn’t really count toward the new, two-term limit because it was under the old constitution. Finally, he broke a vow not to run for yet another term, even after Bolivians rejected a referendum to amend the constitution again and permit him a fourth term. The ensuing election last October was marred by fraud, according to international observers, which triggered the protests that ended in Morales’ ouster.

Jeanine Anez, a conservative senator in the opposition, then declared herself interim president with what she called a “strictly temporary” mandate that was limited to leading the country to new, credible elections. Morales immediately rejected her presidency, urging his followers to do the same. For a moment, it looked like his exhortations would be followed. Mass protests continued, some of them violent, with some of his followers chanting, “Now, civil war!”

But instead, something else happened. In the Senate, an obscure MAS member, Eva Copa, rose to prominence and became president of the body. Most Bolivians had never heard of her. She says she never met with Morales while he was president outside of formal functions and gatherings of MAS legislators.

Bolivians wondered if she would use her powerful new post to help bring Morales back to power. Instead, Copa threw a wrench in Morales’ plans, calling for calm, not civil war. “Let’s rid ourselves of the [political] colors and of radical positions,” she declared. “What the country seeks is peace.” Copa and Anez, the two women suddenly at the helm of Bolivia’s two most powerful branches of government, have worked together to prepare for new elections, now set for May 3. Lawmakers have appointed a new, six-member electoral tribunal, and international observers have been invited to oversee the voting.

But Anez has also been overplaying her hand and hardly acting like an interim or caretaker president, accused by her critics of repressing the MAS, curbing press freedoms and in general abusing her authority. Morales has stirred controversy too. From neighboring Argentina, the exiled president told a reporter earlier this month that Bolivians should create armed militias like the ones Chavistas have built in Venezuela. Some Morales supporters said they’d get to work on it, but the overwhelming reaction in Bolivia was outrage, prompting Morales to backtrack and claim he had been misunderstood.

The episode hurt Morales with many of his erstwhile supporters. Some in his base had already grown disenchanted with him in recent years, feeling that Morales, who had once enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings, was taking them for granted and ignoring their views. With the election date set and the parties choosing their candidates, Morales is fighting to preserve his influence.

After MAS members settled on former Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca as the party’s presidential candidate, Morales quickly pushed back. He announced his own competing choice for president, Luis Arce, the architect of his successful economic policies, who had fled to exile with him. Arce is being investigated by the interim government for corruption in a wide-ranging probe of members of Morales’ administration. For a brief period, it looked as if the MAS would fracture. But in a crucial victory for Morales, he proposed a joint ticket, with Arce as presidential candidate and Choquehuanca as his running mate, and the party accepted it. Arce returned to Bolivia this week.

While the MAS seems to have patched up its divisions, the conservative opposition is a long way from choosing its ticket. Multiple prominent figures have announced their candidacies, including centrist Carlos Mesa—a former president who ran against Morales in the doomed October election and might have emerged as the winner if there hadn’t been fraud—and Jorge Quiroga, another former president.

But the biggest electoral bombshell came late last week, when Anez threw her hat into the crowded ring, despite questions about the legality of the move and whether she is required to first resign as interim president if she wants to be a candidate. Her announcement angered both her critics and her allies, who viewed it as a violation of her role as an interim leader. “A presidential candidacy disrupts her historic role and the credibility of the transition,” Mesa said. One member of her Cabinet, Communications Minister Roxana Lizarraga, resigned in protest, calling Anez’s decision to run for president while serving as interim leader a “betrayal of democracy.”

The dispute is welcome news for the MAS and for Arce, who is narrowly leading in polls against the rest of the deeply divided field. Arce, who still faces his own potential legal problems over corruption charges, is now questioning whether the upcoming elections can be trusted if Anez is running as a candidate while occupying the presidency. It’s the same question that Morales’ critics asked of him a few months ago.

Bolivia weathered the convulsion that followed that election last fall. But much remains unresolved, including where Morales fits into the country’s inevitably contentious future.

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