A hero to some, a budding dictator to others, Evo Morales is a politically problematic man man. His role in a controversial 2019 election forced him to flee the country he was once President of, so who is this man?
Evo Morales entered politics in the early 1980’s as an activist for the rights of indigenous Andean communities, of which he was a member. As part of the infamous ‘war on drugs’ the Bolivian military regime, supported by the US, targeted coca crops, which, whilst being the primary ingredient of cocaine, is also a herb with important ties to Andean cultures. To many indigenous people this represented an attack on their way of life.
During the campaign Bolivian counter-narcotic police, with alleged DEA (US Drug Enforcement Agency) complicity, ran roughshod over rural indigenous people with beatings, unlawful detainment and even torture being commonplace tactics. Morales’ experience of the routine abuse of indigenous people and rural working class Bolivians, alongside blatant US involvement, undoubtedly defined his politics. He became a figurehead for Socialist and anti-US movements in South America.
His activism led him to a career in trade unions, representing rural farmers in his home state of Chapare. By 1988 he was elected executive secretary of the national federation of coca-growing unions. Morales used this platform to found a national political party called Movement For Socialism (known as MAS), which grew in size until eventually winning a landslide victory in the 2005 election, propelling Morales into the position of Bolivia's first indigenous president.
He retained office until the controversial 2019 election, (which you can read about here) in which several independent audits concluded MAS had tampered with the election to ensure victory. In the face of growing protests and pressure from the army Morales was forced to resign from office and flee Bolivia in exile to Mexico, and later Argentina.
This October, Bolivia finally reran the disputed 2019 election, after being postponed twice. Morales’ ex-finance minister, Luis Acre, ran as the MAS candidate and won a landslide victory. Acre secured 55% of the popular vote, compared to the 30% share achieved by the second place centrist candidate Carlos Mesa.
Morales celebrated the victory for his party, tweeting “sisters and brothers: the will of the people has been imposed (...) now we are going to restore dignity and freedom to the people”. He later stated that he would be returning to Bolivia on the 11th of November. However his return does not necessarily herald a return to power.
Whilst Morales undoubtedly retains political weight and support, particularly in the rural mountainous regions where his career began, Acre made an effort to distance himself from Morales during his campaign. After the election a senior MAS politician said that whilst Morales “in his time was the vital element” now "we believe our comrade should rest” and crucially “not interfere with the government of brother Luis Acre”. This shows a decision by MAS to honour Morales’ contribution to their party, whilst also distancing the new presidency from the controversy associated with him.
Morales, to many, is a hero of an international socialist movement, as well as a champion for the rights of indigenous people. However these labels which his supporters celebrate are also marks of evil to his opponents. Furthermore in his 13 years as President of Bolivia he attracted far more scandals than just the accusations of election tampering that ended his premiership.
Morales maintained his overwhelming public support for such a long time due to the success of his economic reforms. He began by casting off recommendations by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) and instead instituting huge land redistribution programmes and sweeping nationalisations of natural resources industries, such as gas and oil extraction. Despite initial reactions of horror from countries and organisations in the global north, Bolivia has now been praised for its rapid economic growth, ironically even by the IMF. The Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington reported in 2014 that Bolivia’s economy has grown faster since Morales’ election than in any period in the previous 35 year. This growth has been felt by the public; with poverty decreasing by 25%, extreme poverty by 43% and real minimum wage increasing by 87.7%.
In terms of social progress under Morales there have been huge steps forward for the recognition and empowerment of indigenous communities, who despite constituting a majority of the Bolivian population did not have their rights enshrined in the constitution. Three aspects in which his championing are pointed to by his supporters are the anti-racism laws of 2010, increased participation in higher education by indigenous people (up to 50% of University students) and the protection of small scale coca farming.
Regarding women’s rights Morales has consistently implemented measures designed at reducing gender inequality. Between 2006 and 2008 Morales’ regime distributed 10,300 property titles to rural women, with the intention of altering the power balance in rural communities. From the beginning Morales was backed by Unions that represented women in the workforce, and many of their members found prominent places in his cabinet. In 2011 half of the positions in his cabinet were held by women. In order to address high infant and mother mortality rates Morales introduced subsidies for pregnant mothers, as well as financial rewards for attending pre and post natal classes and universal free vaccinations for babies.
Finally, regarding policies towards LGBTQ+ Bolivians, whilst same-sex marriage was not legalised, Morales passed anti-discrimination laws and removed gendered terms from sections of the constitution regarding the family. He also declared June the 28th to be a Sexual Minority Rights Day and established a television show for gay Bolivians on the state broadcasting channel.
Critics are concerned that Morales was beginning to edge towards autocracy, and even a dictatorship. During his third term he made no apparent attempt to nominate an heir, and when a referendum was held to decide whether he would be allowed to stand for a fourth term, the population voted against him. Despite this result Morales used the Supreme Court to overturn the referendum ruling, on the grounds that it violated his human rights. He was subsequently permitted to stand again as the MAS candidate in the 2019 election. This, combined with alleged election tampering reveals his intentions to hold onto power, with or without a democratic mandate.
Morales’ private life has also caused controversy, with serious accusations of corruption, censorship, rape of a minor and human trafficking being levied against him.
In 2016, as Morales celebrated his tenth year in office, it was revealed that his ex-girlfriend Gabriela Zapata had used her relationship to leverage $500m in government contracts for the Chinese engineering firm which she worked for. The media frenzy escalated as a series of surreal revelations about Morales' relationship with Zapata became public. Firstly Morales revealed that they had a child in 2007 which had died shortly afterwards, then Zapata claimed the child had not died and was hidden. Morales responded to these claims with denial and detained the foster parents of the alleged love child. This series of events caused great embarrassment for Morales, it also revealed an authoritarian side to him as he attempted to stop the media from reporting the story, going as far as threatening to jail journalists who wrote about it.
This year Bolivia's justice ministry has filed a criminal complaint against Morales over an alleged sexual relationship with a minor. The woman, who is now 19, is pictured with Morales between 2006 and 2019 and is reported to have travelled repeatedly with him. After Morales was exiled to Mexico and then Argentina she was flown out to see him several times. These incidents of international travel are where the accusations of human trafficking stem from. Morales has not commented on the allegations.
It is worth noting that none of the crimes mentioned above have been proven, and none of the charges have landed.