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Evo Morales’ party wins Bolivian election, but where does the exiled former president fit in?

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales sings the national anthem in a file photo.
Evo Morales, singing the national anthem in a file photo, remains in exile from Bolivia but said he would return if his party won a national election.
(Juan Karita / Associated Press)

As three-term Bolivian President Evo Morales’ political party sought to return to power a year after his resignation, the exiled ex-leader had vowed to return home the “next day” if it won last Sunday’s national election.

Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party, known as MAS, earned a landslide electoral victory, propelling Morales’ former economic minister, Luis Arce, into the presidency without the need for a runoff vote.

But Morales — still the formal leader of MAS — has yet to set out on his homecoming, and the new government is grappling with how to handle the prospective return of the iconic 60-year-old, who is beloved by many Bolivians but loathed by others. If, or when, he does return, Morales faces sundry criminal charges, including accusations of terrorism stemming from alleged electoral fraud in last year’s balloting — charges he denies.

Morales, who views himself as the ideological heir to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, the now-deceased former leftist leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, respectively, has long been a vociferous critic of U.S. “imperialism” in Latin America. When he resigned amid the disputed election, he called his departure, under pressure from the Bolivian military, the result of a U.S.-backed, right-wing coup.

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The Trump administration celebrated it as a victory for democracy.

But on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo joined with leftist governments in Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba in sending congratulations to Arce. Pompeo also declared that Washington “looks forward to working with the new, democratically elected government.”

Bolivian electoral officials released final results Friday showing that Arce, now officially the president-elect, had garnered more than 55% of the vote. Key to his support was backing from the country’s poor, working-class and Indigenous masses, long the base of MAS.

The majority margin avoided a runoff in which Arce would have faced a united opposition under the banner of former President Carlos Mesa, who finished second with about 29% of the vote. MAS candidates also appeared headed for a majority in the Legislative Assembly.

To date, President-elect Arce has tried to sidestep questions about Morales’ possible return, pointedly, if uncomfortably, distancing himself from his longtime mentor. Few here can envision Morales being anything but the top guy.

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“If Evo Morales wants to help us, he will be very welcome,” Arce told the BBC. “But that does not mean that Morales will be in the government. … I am not Evo Morales.”

Moreover, officials have so far insisted that Morales will have to fight the pending criminal charges — including allegations that he sexually molested an underage girl while in office, an accusation that Morales’ representatives have dismissed as part of a “dirty war” against him.

“Our brother Evo will be in charge of cleaning up his image from all the defamation he has faced,” Sen. Monica Eva Copa, who leads the MAS contingent in the Senate, told reporters.

The comments appear to reflect an effort to distance MAS from Morales, a onetime leader of the union representing growers of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine. Morales was elected Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2005 and remains a legend of the international left. But his legacy here is more mixed. Even many of his defenders were alienated by corruption scandals during his administration and what they perceived as his apparent determination to be president for life.

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In the last year, MAS has presented itself as a reformed body distinct from Morales. In fact, observers say the party was long more heterogeneous than the Morales-dominated monolith depicted by its foes. A generation of grass-roots activists helped propel MAS to victory this year in both rural and urban areas.

Sunday’s election results “demonstrate that the changes of the Movement Toward Socialism have had good results, with new leaders from different perspectives,” said Sergio Choque, president of the MAS delegation in the lower house of the legislature.

Arce, 57, faces a plethora of daunting challenges — chief among them restoring trust in a deeply polarized nation of 11 million and rebuilding an economy ravaged by depressed commodity prices and the COVID-19 pandemic.

He and his allies have vowed to rule in a spirit of national unity, even as right-wing protests against the electoral results flared this week in the eastern region of Santa Cruz, a bastion of opposition to MAS. Representatives of the country’s newly elected leadership have reached out to middle-class and other Bolivians long alienated by Morales.

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“We will govern without hatred or resentment,” vowed Sebastián Michel, MAS spokesman. “The first thing to do is heal the economy to recover from the crisis.”

For the newly re-empowered MAS, Morales may now represent more of a liability than an asset. Arce, a British-educated banker, is a low-key technocrat whose style is distinct from Morales’ polemical bravura — though Arce has said that Bolivia plans to resume diplomatic ties with Venezuela and Cuba.

During the heated electoral campaign, opposition parties of the right endeavored to make the voting a referendum on Morales, denouncing Arce as a puppet.

“If we are not united, Morales will return,” warned Jeanine Añez, Bolivia’s interim president and an archrival of Morales.

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Arce and MAS, in contrast, de-emphasized Morales and cast their campaign as a prelude to the resumption of democratic rule following almost a year of repressive, right-wing leadership under Añez. MAS accused her government of violently stifling the opposition and the press, and it also emphasized the economy during the campaign.

Arce promised a return to the good times that had characterized much of Morales’ almost 14 years in power, a period during which high commodity prices and government largesse helped lift multitudes from poverty in what has long been one of Latin America’s poorest and most politically volatile nations. As Morales’ economic wingman, Arce presided over the era of progress. Whether he can duplicate that amid contracted growth, high unemployment and slumping commodity prices remains a question mark.

Morales sought his fourth consecutive presidential mandate last year despite a 2016 plebiscite imposing term limits. Morales went to court in a successful effort to allow him to run, and he was leading in the count in 2019 when the process deteriorated into mass protests, violence and allegations of fraud. He said he was leaving the country at the demand of the military, the victim of a coup, a charge echoed by supporters worldwide. Others criticized Morales for insisting on running again.

“Evo could have not run last year and left office a hero,” said Jim Shultz, a longtime observer of Bolivia and head of the Democracy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

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Morales initially fled to Mexico, where he thanked President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for having “saved my life,” before moving on to Buenos Aires. Argentina’s left-wing leadership granted him political asylum.

President-elect Arce is scheduled to be sworn in next month for a five-year term. Global leaders are expected to be on hand. But many wonder: Will Evo Morales, the onetime llama herder and trumpet player in an itinerant band who revolutionized Bolivian politics, be among the dignitaries in attendance?

Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Padilla from La Paz.


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