Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, fled to Mexico on Nov. 12, and his country now faces an uncertain future. Morales had little choice. Evidence that he had tried to steal his country’s latest presidential election pushed hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Bolivia’s largest cities in recent days. The critical moment came on Nov. 8, when a number of police officers joined the demonstrations. When a report from the Organization of American States gave credibility and specificity to the charges of cheating, members of the President’s party began to resign, and the head of Bolivia’s military then appeared on television to call on Morales to quit. Now, the sun appears to have set on his nearly 14 years in power.
In 2006, Morales made history as Bolivia’s first indigenous President. The country’s voters, fed up with chronic inequality and a political elite almost entirely of European descent, opted instead for a farmer and union leader who looked and sounded like the country’s majority. Morales rewarded their confidence with a remarkable accomplishment: he used a global commodities boom to boost economic growth and used the gains to narrow Bolivia’s gap between rich and poor, in part by nationalizing some energy companies and directing revenue from gas, metals and soybean meal to social-welfare programs and regional authorities. These programs helped -Morales win re-election twice.
But success encouraged the President to believe he could undermine Bolivia’s democracy by, for example, stacking the courts with political loyalists. As he ran up against term limits that he himself had enacted, he launched a public referendum he hoped would extend his mandate. When voters rejected his proposal, he took the matter to court. When the largely loyal judges agreed these limits violated his human rights, he defied the public by again standing for election. In the middle of a tight race, with Morales’ lead just under the 10 points he needed to avoid a runoff, election authorities stopped publishing vote tallies for 24 hours. When reporting resumed, Morales had just enough votes to win outright. The resulting wave of anger forced him into exile because he lost the support of the police and the army. His ally in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, who has committed far more egregious authoritarian oversteps and has less popular support than Morales, has remained in power only because of the military.
The international response to these events is divided. Leaders from the left like Maduro, Argentina’s newly elected President Alberto Fernández, Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel and even Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn say Morales has been ousted by a military coup. Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro say it was Morales who repeatedly undermined his country’s democracy.
But it’s the polarization inside Bolivia, the violence it has provoked, and the uncertainty it has created that are most concerning. Morales says he is the victim of a conspiracy with roots both inside and outside his country. “Soon I will return with greater strength and energy,” he tweeted. His defiance has encouraged supporters, as well as opponents, to commit acts of violence. With Bolivia’s Vice President, President of the Senate and President of the Lower House having all resigned, the opposition party’s Jeanine Áñez, the Senate’s second vice president, is the interim replacement. She promises a new election by Jan. 22. The apparent end of the Morales era is unlikely to end the crisis.