World

Morales’s Bolivia: Autocracy, Corruption, Waste

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales looks on during an interview with Reuters in Mexico City, November 15, 2019. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
His socialist government leaves a dismal legacy, and he hasn’t given up yet.

When President Evo Morales of Bolivia was caught by election observers in an artless attempt to steal an illegal fourth term, the police withdrew their support for the president. Realizing that they were next in the chain of command, the military preemptively warned Morales that they would refuse to fire on innocent protesters, who had turned out in great numbers demanding his resignation, and suggested he resign as a means of ending the crisis. Since then, debate has raged, as Morales claims he is another victim in a long line of Latin American leaders toppled by a U.S.-backed coup.

As an asylee in Mexico City, Morales continues to foment violence and plot a return to power. Deadly confrontations have broken out between his supporters and those of the new interim government, leading to the deaths of more than 30 Bolivians. At this point, however, with a political comeback highly unlikely, it is best to turn away from the merits of the coup debate and instead address Morales’s legacy after almost 14 years in power. Many in the region have shed a tear for Morales, defending his legacy as one of firsts and pointing to his poverty reduction as proof that his brand of “socialism can work,” as one Washington Post columnist put it recently.

The question of Morales’s legacy is more than an academic exercise. In fact, it has implications well beyond Bolivia. Recently, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet nearly 50 percent of Americans now embrace some form of socialism. This is somewhat understandable: Younger Americans did not live the Cold War experience or encounter the grim reality of life behind the Iron Curtain. When they are confronted with this reality through history books and video evidence, the most common refrain remains commitment to the tenets of socialism while arguing that the regimes of Eastern Europe erred in their “poor application” of the principles. And for Morales’s supporters, Bolivia was engaged in a “good application” of socialism. Yet the truth is messier and far less convenient than Morales’s defenders would like to admit.

Instead, Morales’s principal legacy is one of beaten and battered democratic institutions shot through with corruption. While his bid for a constitutionally suspect fourth term would have cemented his control over Bolivian politics, Morales’s undemocratic behavior began well before that. Bolivia’s independent media have been stifled by government pressure and a concerted harassment campaign, including lawsuits and the politicization of public-advertising contracts. Morales went about targeting opposition lawmakers with precision, wielding his control over the judiciary to influence verdicts and insulate himself and his allies from prosecution.

It is a familiar story. Over time, Morales’s personalistic rule and autocratic tendencies insulated him from criticism. Eventually, he even became alienated from his own base of support. Morales’s reluctance to identify and groom a successor severely complicated matters, leaving his party with no choice but to declare his leadership “indispensable” in 2014. Despite his losing a binding referendum in 2016 on his eligibility for a fourth presidential term, cronies on Bolivia’s Supreme Court invalidated the outcome by accepting the dubious argument that term limits violated his “human rights.” As with so many Latin American caudillos before him, his messianic complex and his desire to remain in power indefinitely largely explain his undoing.

The fact is that throughout his presidency, many organizations and groups moved away from Morales, including influential labor unions and student groups — traditional bastions of left-wing support. Morales also lost the support of some in Bolivia’s sizable indigenous community, who, contrary to popular narrative, do not follow the first indigenous president out of blind loyalty. Indeed, stoking ethnic division was a critical part of Morales’ long-term governing strategy, as evidenced by his highly inflammatory resignation speech.

Morales remains engaged in a double game that few of his supporters are willing to recognize. While he told the Wall Street Journal in an interview that his resignation was “a matter of peace,” he has incited his supporters to violence in a bid to destabilize Bolivia and plot his return. Morales appears intent on preventing any semblance of political stability by ensuring that the country’s politics are fought in the streets, as opposed to proceeding along constitutional lines. This week, supporters of his Movement to Socialism (MAS) used dynamite to blow up a wall and burn vehicles at a state fuel plant. As a result of these disruptions and blockades, major urban centers such as La Paz are experiencing shortages of food and fuel. In a leaked audio recording one day after his interview imploring peace, Morales can be heard urging one of his supporters (and a fugitive drug trafficker): “Brother, don’t let food into the cities, we are going to do a blockade, a true siege. . . . From now it is going to be fight, fight, fight.”

As for Bolivia’s economic progress, any initial benefits from Morales’s re-distributionist policies have been eclipsed by the country’s slowing economy. Even before the current crisis engulfing Bolivia, macroeconomic indicators portended a tough phase for the economy. Under Morales, Bolivia racked up massive external debt and blew through more than half of its international-currency reserves. Bolivia also has the second highest fiscal deficit in the region, behind only Venezuela. Fiscal revenues are down significantly because Bolivia has produced less natural gas while importing more gasoline, stubbornly retaining costly energy subsidies that distort the market. Although Bolivia’s economy did grow under Morales, the dominant narrative of the country’s rosy economic outlook has benefited immensely from a dire regional backdrop — leftists utterly decimated Argentina’s public finances and sent Venezuela’s economy into the largest peacetime economic collapse in world history, making Morales’s economic stewardship look competent by comparison.

Even so, the destruction of 2 million hectares (about 5 million acres, or 8,000 square miles) of the Bolivian Amazon wiped out vital resources and dented Morales’s legacy further. Public anger over his policy — er, electoral gambit — of giving land to indigenous communities and encouraging them to farm forested areas highlighted another hypocrisy. Lacking access to suitable land-clearing techniques, indigenous communities resorted to fire. While the populist leader of Bolivia’s neighbor Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, became a global pariah for green-lighting essentially the same policy, Morales was the beneficiary of a global pass. The fact that Morales professes to revere Pachamama — Mother Earth in Andean indigenous culture — only adds to the deep sense of irony.

From 2000 to 2015, the surge of Latin America’s Left coincided with a commodities boom that made its rise appear unstoppable. When the money from this commodity boom dried up and voters realized that they got little in return — except for a brief taste of middle-class existence, unaffordable social programs, and the expansion of a corrupt class living off government largesse — the region’s leftists either were voted out of power or resorted to autocratic machinations to remain in office. Bolivia, joined by its ideological brethren Venezuela and Nicaragua, took the latter path.

Groundbreaking events like the one unfolding in Bolivia often lend themselves to narrative oversimplification. Morales’s talk of right-wing “coup mongers” has obscured the most revealing facts about his legacy and how it might be remembered. While he had a chance to be remembered as a transformative figure, he departs the political scene just as he entered it in 2006 — a rabble-rouser. Morales tried to steal an election and now complains of a coup; conveys his resignation as a peacebuilding exercise while fomenting civil unrest; and purports to worship the planet while denuding it for electoral gain. He will be remembered far more for what he destroyed than for anything he managed to build.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy and security issues.

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