Evo Morales broke down barriers when he became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, but his refusal to democratically give up power and his tumultuous exit cast a shadow over nearly 14 years of economic progress and poverty reduction.
Forced to resign this week after losing the support of Bolivia’s military, he slipped away into exile in Mexico on Monday night on a Mexican military jet.
Morales could have retired with sky-high popularity and an enviable record had he respected the country’s Constitution, which limits a president to two successive terms. But the 60-year-old former union leader – Latin America’s longest serving president until his resignation under pressure Sunday – couldn’t bring himself to let go of power.
When he first came to office, Bolivia’s constitution only allowed for single presidential mandates but Morales successfully gained cross-party support to hold – and win – a referendum on a new constitution that increased the limit to two terms.
In 2016, he once again held a referendum to allow him to run for a third term. This time, Bolivians voted decisively against the extension.
Undeterred, the Constitutional Court – filled with Morales loyalists – a year later declared it Morales’ human right to stand again, regardless of the Constitution.
“I don’t want to” run again, Morales claimed. “But I don’t want to disappoint my people.”
From that point his popularity started to suffer.
His undoing came in Bolivia’s presidential elections on October 20. The election appeared to be headed for a second round, albeit with Morales in the lead, when the count was inexplicably suspended. When it started up again, Morales’ lead had jumped, suddenly giving him an outright first-round victory.
His defeated opponent, former president Carlos Mesa, immediately cried foul and alleged electoral fraud.
That was supported by the Organisation of American States (OAS), which conducted an audit of the vote count and found “irregularities” in virtually every area reviewed and questioned “the integrity of the election results.”
Morales initially acknowledged the fraud and called for new elections but neither the public nor the Armed Forces were satisfied.
General Williams Kaliman called on him to resign and Morales obliged, setting off a raft of resignations from many of his most prominent allies.
A member of the Aymara people, Morales grew up in poverty on Bolivia’s high plains and was a llama herder, coca farmer and leftist union leader. He became a lawmaker in 1995 and in 2002 launched a bid for the presidency, finishing second in the vote.
Four years later he defeated right-wing candidate Jorge Quiroga to make history as the country’s first indigenous leader.
Sitting on the region’s second-largest gas reserves, after Venezuela, and the world’s largest reserves of lithium, Bolivia’s economy surged under Morales. He nationalised hydrocarbons in 2006, which coincided with an unprecedented global price boom, helping to propel economic growth to nearly five percent a year. Poverty dropped from 38 percent in 2005 to 17 percent last year, according to official figures.
He also embarked on massive public works projects, laying more than 7,000 kilometres of roads and building the cable car that serves the seat of government in La Paz.
Rising foreign investment, particularly from China, helped Bolivia exploit its rich natural resources. It is on track to become the world’s fourth-largest producer of lithium by 2021.
However, long before the social unrest of recent weeks, opponents had accused Morales of tolerating corruption and investing in flashy infrastructure projects at the expense of health and education. A case in point was his decision last year to move the government headquarters into a luxurious skyscraper in La Paz.
Environmentalists also blame him for raging wildfires that destroyed more than four million hectares (10 million acres) of forest and grassland, saying legislation enacted under Morales encouraged wholesale deforestation in order to expand agricultural production.
It’s all a long way from a childhood herding llamas and helping his parents in the fields in a small, arid village in western Bolivia’s Oruro department.
“Until I was 14, I had no idea there was such a thing as underwear. I slept in my clothes... [which] my mother only removed for two reasons: to look for lice or to patch an elbow or a knee,” he wrote in a candid autobiography.
A fierce critic of the United States, Morales was a staunch ally of leftist governments in Cuba and Venezuela.
Bolivia’s election turmoil: a timeline
EVO MORALES SEEKS FOURTH TERM
On October 20, Bolivians go to the polls with Morales, Latin America’s longestserving leader, seeking a fourth straight term amid controversy. His only serious challenger is Carlos Mesa, who served as president between 2003 and 2005.
Partial results released hours after polls close put Morales on 45 percent of the votes and Mesa 38 percent, with 84 percent of ballots counted. A margin of 10 percentage points between candidates is required to avoid a run-off.
VOTE COUNT STALLS
The release of official results is inexplicably stalled overnight. On October 21, international observers ask for clarification and Mesa accuses Morales of cheating to avoid a run-off. Opposition supporters protest outside key vote-counting centres in the capital, La Paz, and in other cities.
Late October 21, the election authority releases more results showing Morales edging towards an outright victory with 95 percent of the votes counted. The Organisation of American States (OAS) monitors express “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change.” Mesa alleges fraud. Violence breaks out at protests in several cities. Mobs torch electoral offices in the cities of Sucre and Potosí.
On October 22, opposition groups call for a nationwide general strike “until democracy and the will of the citizens are respected.” The vice-president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal resigns, criticising what he calls mismanagement of the election count.
On October 23, Morales likens the general strike to a right-wing coup. Mesa urges his supporters to step up protests and insists a “second round must take place.” He says he will not recognise the results tallied by the tribunal, which he accuses of manipulating the count to help Morales win. Clashes break out between rival demonstrators in the opposition bastion of Santa Cruz, where offices housing the electoral authority are set on fire.
MORALES DECLARES VICTORY
On October 24, Morales claims he has won outright.In the evening, the election authority issues final results, giving Morales 47.08 percent of votes and Mesa 36.52 percent. On October 31 the OAS begins an audit of the election results. On November 8, police officers in at least three Bolivian cities join the opposition, in some cases marching in the street with them. On November 10, the OAS announces that it found many irregularities in its analysis of the election.
Two ministers and the speaker of Congress resign after their homes are attacked. The commanders of the Armed Forces and the Police add their voices to the calls for Morales to step down. On the evening of November 10, Morales announces his resignation in a televised address. The streets of La Paz explode in celebration, but violence and vandalism later erupt overnight.
ASYLUM IN MEXICO
Morales is granted political asylum in Mexico and arrives there on November 12. He says he was the victim of a “coup” and vows to stay in politics. Deputy Senate speaker Jeanine Anez pledges to call fresh elections, but for her to be sworn in as interim president, senators must first reach La Paz, where public transport is virtually paralysed. Lacking quorum, she declares herself president. Since the start of the protests, three people have died and more than 250 have been injured.
by JOSÉ ARTURO CÁRDENAS, AFP