The legacy of Evo Morales

Bolivia’s longest serving president: Socialist authoritarian to some, champion of the people to others.

FORMER BOLIVIAN president Evo Morales in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March.  (photo credit: AGUSTIN MARCARIAN/REUTERS)
FORMER BOLIVIAN president Evo Morales in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March.
Next month, Bolivians will head to the polls to elect a new government. These elections, postponed twice out of fear for voters’ well-being during a global pandemic, carry historical weight for Bolivia’s future.
Bolivia ousted its longest-serving president, Evo Morales, in November 2019. Morales’s career is one of socialist authoritarianism, or a champion of the people, depending on the audience. Morales’s legacy is complicated, and to truly understand the path Bolivia is on, we must evaluate how we reached this point.
A young Morales entered politics in the 1980s in response to the US War on Drugs. Morales was a coca farmer at the time, the plant that is the crucial ingredient for cocaine. Bolivian and US Drug Enforcement Agency forces worked to crack down coca farmers to halt cocaine production and trafficking.
Morales, fearful that his industry would collapse, joined a coca workers union. He quickly climbed through the ranks, becoming the head of the Topics Federation, an organization of six unions. In 1996, after a decade in union politics, Morales was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. After taking office, he joined the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement toward Socialism) Party.
Morales used his union connections to paint himself as a fighter for the people. In 2005, he became the first indigenous Bolivian to lead the country. This was no small feat; Bolivia’s indigenous groups make up the majority of the population but never before had a president from their background. The sense that he understood what everyday Bolivians live through made him into a legend throughout the country.
He promised to protect worker rights, modernize the economy and revolutionize Bolivia. Immediately upon taking office, Morales nationalized Bolivia’s oil and gas. His next action as president was to kick out the US DEA from Bolivia, and established strong ties with Cuba and Venezuela, two nations that Morales idealized and sought to replicate.
Throughout Morales’s time in office, an estimated half a million people climbed out of poverty, moderate poverty dropped by 16%, and extreme poverty by 21%. Bolivia rode high prices on oil and gas to provide subsidies to citizens and pay for programs.
Natural resources led to Morales’s first recants on a promise. Many Bolivians wanted to leave behind their mining and fossil fuel past to pursue clean energy. Morales continued to expand, not shrink the country’s carbon footprint.
Environmental concerns resulted in the loss of many of Morales’s allies. His change over time became blatant when he proposed a new highway through the Amazon, a suggestion that infuriated allies. He dropped the highway plan once the criticism reached extreme heights, but the damage was done.
In 2009, Morales put forward a new constitution aiming to centralize power and limit opposition. The constitution also implemented a two-term limit on presidents, a decision he instantly regretted.
MORALES DECIDED that he was not ready to leave office near the end of his second term, and announced he would seek a third. Arguing that since his first term took place under the old constitution, he said was still eligible for another term. This line of logic, while controversial, was accepted by the courts. Morales coasted to a third term, claiming he wanted to see his advancements of Bolivia through.
Where things hit the fan is the end of his third term. Morales once again announced he would like another term as president. Unlike the previous time, the public was not ready to accept his eligibility.
Morales sought to eliminate term limits, a provision he added to the constitution less than a decade earlier. The people would decide the question of Morales’s eligibility via a national referendum. In an outcome Morales never saw coming, he lost with 51% voting to not adjust the term limit. Viewing this as a speed bump, not defeat, Morales moved to take a harder grip on government institutions.
After packing the courts and government bodies with more allies, Morales challenged the constitution he wrote in those same courts. The Supreme Court of Bolivia ruled that term limits violated Morales’s human rights, clearing the way for him to run for a fourth term. Protests erupted throughout the country, and it was crystal clear that the people’s champion was long gone.
Come time for the election, Morales was leading but not by a wide enough margin to win outright. Out of nowhere, results stopped being reported for more than 24 hours. When polling came back online, Morales led his opponent 47% to 35%. Millions of Bolivians took to the streets to demand an audit of the results, and they were met with police violence.
Morales agreed to an investigation by the Organization of American States. The review found “clear manipulations” of votes and listed a plethora of irregularities. The government moved to hold new elections, but the military said Morales had to go.
This upcoming election will determine how Morales’s long and complicated journey is eventually told. If Movimiento al Socialismo wins, Morales may be remembered fondly. If any of the other Bolivian parties claim victory, it is unlikely Morales will be noted as anything more than another toppled South American socialist.
Morales’s Allies view his departure as a military coup, claiming Western powers seeking natural resources are to blame. Morales regularly works to discredit the interim government from afar and claims he will return. Former president and current presidential candidate Carlos Mesa noted Morales’s leadership was an “authoritarian path” that the nation could choose to leave.
No matter the winner, we should be honest about his legacy. Morales used force and tore down separations of power to achieve his goals. Bolivia deserves to have a future with a functioning government, not a de facto king. Morales turned on his allies, broke promises, and refused to let go once in power. Bolivia should vote to remember him and his party as such.