Evo Morales Was the Americas’ Greatest President

On the day of Bolivia's presidential election, we look at the legacy of Evo Morales — who won power in South America's poorest country, tripled its GDP, and lifted millions out of extreme poverty.

Evo Morales on January 11, 2015 in Bolivia. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)

In October 2003, Bolivia was in the grips of revolutionary insurrection. Residents in El Alto, the neighboring city of La Paz, were blocking the supply of fuel to the capital in protest at a deal to sell off Bolivian gas to Chile on unfavorable terms. To quash the protest, the government ordered the military to fire on the unarmed civilians, killing dozens.

This was the peak of the Bolivian gas war, a spate of struggles over popular control of natural resources that forced the resignation of neoliberal president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada. These uprisings between 2000 and 2004 saw the mobilization of peasants, miners, and indigenous groups against the privatization of the country’s resources and other neoliberal policies. This groundswell also led to the election of ex-president Evo Morales and the social movement-backed party Movement Toward Socialismo (MAS) in 2005.

MAS had emerged during the mid-nineties as the organized political wing of CSUTCB, the landworkers’ union, and played a key role in the uprisings of the early 2000s. Its core bases of support have historically been with Bolivia’s peasantry and coca growers, and is conditionally supported by the COB, the powerful miner-led trade union federation which led the struggle for democracy during the dictatorships of the seventies and eighties. And during the mid-2000s “Pink Tide,” when left-socialist governments swept to power across the continent, MAS became internationally known for their ambitious attempts at implementing socialist reforms.

But fifteen years later, with Morales ousted in a right-wing coup, Bolivia is once again paralyzed by mass social unrest. This current juncture therefore offers a poignant moment for the Left to reflect on the challenges, achievements, and limitations of thirteen years of socialist government in Bolivia.

Taking Power

When Morales assumed office in January 2006, he was the first indigenous president of Bolivia — a country historically structured around racism. The son of impoverished llama herders in Oruru, Morales cut his teeth in the semitropical Chapare region as a coca grower, quickly rising through the ranks of the powerful coca growers’ union federation to become a nationally prominent figure.

Under his presidency, MAS won successive elections with unprecedented margins in 2009 and 2014, running on an economic agenda of modest wealth redistribution and partial hydrocarbon nationalization coupled with an evocative discourse of decolonization.

This mattered intensely in a country that has thirty-six recognized indigenous languages, and 42 percent of the population self-identifying as indigenous in the latest census. “For the first time in Bolivian history,” Morales declared at his 2006 inauguration ceremony in the symbolic location of Tiwanaku, the ancient Aymara ruins outside La Paz, “Aymaras, Quechuas, and Mojeños, we are presidents.” For many, his election was nothing less than the culmination of five hundred years of anti-colonial resistance in the Americas.

In 2010, Bolivia was reconfigured by the government as a plurinational state, giving political autonomy to indigenous nations. The 2010 Law of Mother Earth enshrined the rights of nature in the Constitution. “Either capitalism dies or else planet Earth dies,” he exclaimed at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010. Morales also broke with US-backed policies toward coca, replacing the militarized eradication of coca crops with a successful community-based coca control program.

The newfound visibility and prominence of indigenous peoples in Bolivia have been the undisputed success of MAS in power. They are now represented as political actors at the state level and across society. For the first time, cholitas — women who wear urban-indigenous dress — can now be seen presenting the news or taking up various public office roles.

In economic terms, the government — buoyed by the commodity boom of the 2000s — embarked on ambitious social spending programs while presiding over strong economic growth in Latin America’s poorest country. As a result of their actions, GDP tripled while income inequality went down by two-thirds and extreme poverty dropped from 38 percent to 17 percent.

Yet tensions and contradictions soon became apparent as Morales’s indigenous-liberationist agenda was accompanied by an economic model of resource extraction and development. In 2011, this brought Morales into open conflict with a large sector of peasant and indigenous communities when the government attempted to build a highway through the protected Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) in order to connect Villa Tunari in Cochabamba with San Ignacio de Moxos in Beni. Ostensibly, the hope was that this would link the Amazonian and Andean regions and bring crucial infrastructure and access to services to the area’s communities. Coca growers in the Chapare region — a bastion of MAS support — especially stood to benefit from access to the road.

The plans sparked protests from indigenous communities living in the area, who alongside NGOs and environmental groups, feared that the development would invite environmental degradation and encroachment on their lands. When communities marched to defend their territorial autonomy and right to prior consultation, the march was repressed by police and at least seventy people were wounded; Morales later conceded that the plans were a “mistake.”

Morales also struggled to curtail the power of big agribusiness. The tropical lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni, and Tarija, known as the “media luna” region, have historically been the nexus of ruling-class antagonism to Morales and MAS. Elites in the east of the country have always rejected Morales’s syndicalist, anti-neoliberal, and indigenous-oriented politics, calling for a civic strike in 2008. This came alongside a wave of violence from local fascist groups and intimidation of peasant activists orchestrated by authorities in the area of Pando.

However, MAS politicians began to see advantages in a pragmatic rapprochement with eastern agricultural capitalists. Santa Cruz is dominated by major latifundistas, with around five million hectares of the area’s most fertile agricultural land in the hands of large landowners, and much of this land accumulated during Bolivia’s twentieth-century dictatorships. In 2013, Morales announced a plan to triple Bolivia’s farmland to thirteen million hectares by 2025. The MAS mayor of Beni tabled a law that would have opened large swathes of lowland territory to ranching, thereby contributing to environmental degradation. The national legislature also approved laws that expanded biofuel production and increased beef exports to China, both of which entailed vast deforestation.

The Coup

So, what finally went wrong for Morales and MAS? By 2019, it was clear his position was becoming perilous. The devastating fires in Chiquitania garnered widespread criticism and allowed the Santa Cruz–based right to go on the political offensive. His decision to run for a fourth term also proved controversial, since the 2009 Bolivian Constitution limited presidential terms to only two terms, and Morales had only been able to serve for three because his first election in 2006 preceded this constitutional change.

In February 2016, Morales held a plebiscite to allow him to run for a fourth term. It resulted in a narrow “no” vote, but in 2017 the constitutional court, packed with MAS adherents, ruled that preventing him from standing for reelection would violate his human rights. This generated significant discontent from many Bolivians, particularly among urban middle classes who saw it as a betrayal of representative democracy.

After the first round of voting in the October 2019 elections, it was these same urban middle classes who marched in the cities to denounce “fraud” and demand the resignation of the so-called dictator Morales. An army of pititas — comprising anti-MAS youth and the middle classes — erected blockades in the street, while a wave of right-wing violence saw the torching of electoral buildings and the houses of prominent MAS politicians. Ultra-right figures rapidly seized the initiative, notably Luis Fernando Camacho, a wealthy businessman from Santa Cruz with ties to fascist youth group Union Juvenil Cruceñista.

The cry of fraud was spurred on by the premature release of a report by the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS), which suggested that there had been “manipulation” in the vote count. No firm evidence was offered by the OAS, and its claims have since been debunked by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), an American research organization.

On November 10, in the face of insurmountable protest and after the “suggestion” by the military that he resign, Morales was forced to flee to Mexico. In the power vacuum, the Senate’s second vice president Jeanine Áñez became interim president, representing a right-wing party that had received just 4 percent of the vote. A brutal clampdown against anti-coup protesters swiftly followed: in scenes reminiscent of 2003, nine people were shot dead by state forces during a peaceful blockade at the Senkata gas plant in El Alto on November 19. Eight coca growers were massacred by state security forces as they protested against the new government in Sacaba, Cochabamba. According to research by the anthropologist Carwil Bjork-James, the Bolivian military killed more protesters and bystanders in this period than in the previous decade.

The coup was promptly celebrated by the Trump administration. Relations between the United States and Bolivia had been factious ever since Morales expelled the United States Agency for International Development Aid (USAID) from the country in 2013 over its interference in state affairs. Some have additionally speculated that Bolivia’s lithium deposits — the largest in the world — may have motivated foreign interest in destabilizing the government.

The coup also saw old racial fears of a “malón” — an attack by Indians — resurface. Well-heeled paceños formed makeshift barricades in the streets in fear of reprisals by the indigenous peoples of neighboring El Alto after Morales’s resignation. A darker, fascistic current emerged in these protests; after Morales was gone, “Indians out of UMSA” could be seen daubed on the walls of UMSA, La Paz’s public university. Protesters were filmed burning the wiphala, the flag representing Andean indigenous peoples. As the Aymara writer Jesus Oscuri observed at the time, “it seemed as if the Indian was expelled from power.”

The regime went on to bring charges against its opponents — journalists, trade unionists, and students, among many others — accusing them of sedition and terrorism. In January 2020, Patricia Hermosa, who legally represented Morales, was detained and imprisoned as she tried to file Morales’s paperwork to register as a congressional candidate while she was pregnant. She lost her baby in prison. Corruption and nepotism were also quick to rear its head. In May, health minister Marcelo Navajas was arrested after a multimillion-dollar fraud case over ventilators being imported from Spain to deal with the coronavirus pandemic when Bolivia’s beleaguered health system needed them urgently.

Where Next?

Elections were initially scheduled for May but were postponed to this weekend by the Electoral Tribunal on the grounds of the COVID-19 pandemic. Polls have consistently predicted a victory for MAS, which is running Luis Arce Catacora — the ex-economy minister who presided over the impressive economic growth of the 2000s — as their candidate.

Elections may be one way to unite a dangerously fractured Bolivia. The country has been paralyzed by general strikes and blockades, as peasants, miners, and indigenous groups mobilized to demand that elections are held and Áñez resigns. Just as in the 2000s, MAS is not leading these uprisings but is one of many political actors in the fray.

As the left base in Bolivia and internationally reflects on MAS’s tenure, it is important to avoid Manichean characterizations of Morales. He presided over the progressive economic transformation of the country, helping the poorest and reasserting indigenous power. However, Morales had alienated many of his key supporters by the time he was forced to resign by the military. The MAS bureaucracy had begun to stifle the autonomy of the social movements which initially formed its base. Even Juan Huarachi, ex-miner, MAS ally, and executive secretary of the COB, asked Morales to resign by the very end.

Yet it is true that Morales was confronted with emboldened right-wing urban elites who had the support of the police and acquired critical mass in the streets. It is obvious that Evo was an exceptional leader of a popular party, elected four times in a political culture suspicious of presidential reelection. But he also stretched the limits of the permissible. In the end, this only benefited the likes of Áñez and her ilk, the enemies of social progress who want what veteran journalist Fernando Molina has called the “Bolsonarization” of Bolivia.