Evo Morales: indigenous leader who changed Bolivia but stayed too long

Laurence Blair and Dan Collyns in La Paz
Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

The meteoric political journey of Evo Morales came to an end – for now, at least – right where it started: in a steamy jungle region of central Bolivia.

Related: What the coup against Evo Morales means to indigenous people like me | Nick Estes

It was in El Chapare that Morales cut his teeth in the 1980s, helping organise his fellow coca farmers against US-backed efforts to eradicate the raw ingredient of cocaine.

And it was here that he fled to last weekend, after resigning the presidency – at the prompting of Bolivia’s top general – as deadly protests convulsed the country amid allegations of electoral fraud.

Pictured lying atop a blanket on a safehouse floor, Morales fondly recalled his time as a local leader on Twitter. He had often promised to return and retire here.

But late on Monday, Bolivia’s longest-serving president instead boarded a Mexican government jet bound for exile.

The intervening four decades form one of the more remarkable biographies of the modern era. It is a story that is idiosyncratically Bolivian, but reflects very Latin American currents of boom, bust and revolution – and speaks to a universal theme of power and its corrosive effects.

Morales was born to a poor family of llama herders in 1959, at a time when indigenous people were doused with pesticides when entering government buildings.

Twenty years later, he moved to Chapare where his activities as a trade unionist (and keen amateur footballer) saw Morales grow in stature and shrewdness. He overcame beatings, arrests, racist abuse and factional infighting to assume the leadership of the Movement for Socialism (Mas) – a broad bloc of miners, farmers and leftwing urbanites – and entered congress.

Morales, then president-elect, takes off a garland of coca leaves during a rally in Eterazama, in his home province of Chapare in 2005. Photograph: Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images

He soon gained prominence at the head of a popular rebellion against moves to sell Bolivia’s natural gas cheaply via neighbouring Chile – a historical enemy – to the United States.

The so-called Gas War (2003-05) – in which the armed forces killed more than 60 people – fatally discredited the authorities, drawn from the same European-descended elites that had ruled Bolivia for centuries. Following the flight of one president and the resignation of another, Carlos Mesa, Morales swept to power in 2005 elections with over half of the national vote.

Morales promised nothing less than a cosmic rebalancing. “We will end the colonial state and the neoliberal model,” he vowed. “Five hundred years of resistance by the indigenous peoples of America are over.”

Helped by a global boom in commodity prices, a partial nationalisation of oil and gas paid for generous social programmes that slashed poverty rates from 59% to 35%. South America’s poorest country became its fastest-growing, averaging a 5% expansion every year for well over a decade.

A reformed constitution made Bolivia a plurinational state, with official status given to 36 indigenous peoples and languages, and an Andean emblem of Technicolor pixels – the Wiphala – flown henceforth alongside the national tricolour. Coca cultivation was legalised and respect for Pachamama – the Andean earth mother – enshrined in the constitution.

Morales “ushered in a new, more modern Bolivia that is more egalitarian, less racist, and more economically vibrant”, said Diego von Vacano, a political scientist, likening the leader’s early achievements to those of Nelson Mandela.

Evo Morales, in green shirt, plays football at the 6,000m snow-covered Sajama peak, the highest in Bolivia, during a match to protest against Fifa’s ban on international matches at venues over 2,500m, in 2007. Photograph: Reuters

Half of the national assembly were women, many of them indigenous, who wore jaguar skins and flowing pollera skirts with newfound pride.

Morales quelled a separatist revolt by wealthier, lowland provinces. Every year he remained in power – returning with greater majorities in 2009 and 2014 – was an achievement of sorts, in a country famous for putsches, assassinations and revolutions.

Abroad, Morales appeared with fellow “pink tide” leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, lambasted North American imperialism and (unsuccessfully) sued Chile for access to the Pacific Ocean.

At home, he incessantly toured in his presidential plane, pressing the flesh and cutting ribbons. His party trick, one Mas legislator recalled, was to identify individual hamlets from the air and recite from memory how his government had helped: a school here, a sports ground there.

But this personalised element was, perhaps, the fatal weakness of his revolution.

Morales disdained to groom a successor. A vast museum dedicated to Morales in his home town, and a towering government skyscraper in Bolivia’s administrative capital of La Paz – complete with helipad and luxury presidential apartment – were criticised as expensive vanity projects.

Related: Bolivian president’s new residence is as imposing as it is divisive

Morales backtracked on promises, seeking to drive a highway through the Tipnis indigenous reserve. He loosened environmental protections, contributing to manmade wildfires that scorched some 4 million hectares(15,500 sq miles) in 2019. Government inaction contributed to the disappearance of Lake Poopó, a vast inland sea.

“The government of Evo Morales has been a profoundly rhetorical one, where he says things but doesn’t do them,” said María Galindo, founder of the feminist collective Mujeres Creando, citing a failure to address domestic violence and femicide. “It’s the same story with the rights of indigenous people and Mother Earth.”

A new constitution allowed Morales to run for a third term in 2014. For his fourth attempt, he first sought approval in a 2016 referendum, which was narrowly rejected.

A year later, the constitutional court – its judges elected from a shortlist drawn up by the Mas-dominated legislature – ruled that term limits violated the president’s human rights.

The spark to this deeply combustible scenario came on election day, when a preliminary vote count was abruptly paused after its electricity, internet and phone access were cut.

When the tallying resumed 24 hours later, Morales had surpassed the 10 percentage-point lead needed to defeat his rival, Mesa, in the first round.

Election monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) cried foul, citing “clear manipulation” of voting data, a hidden server, forged scrutineers’ signatures and phantom votes. Sympathetic observers pointed to traditionally late-returning rural votes to explain the incongruities.

Protests by traditional opponents in the eastern city of Santa Cruz were gradually joined by young, indigenous city dwellers. Violent clashes claimed at least 10 lives.

Cornered, Morales made the biggest concessions of his career – first accepting a full OAS audit of the vote, then agreeing to fresh elections.

Morales dances on stage during his closing campaign rally ahead of elections in El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz, in mid-October. Photograph: Jorge Sáenz/AP

As demonstrations raged, a powerful workers’ union called on him to consider his position. A police mutiny, apparently over pay and leadership gripes, broke out in multiple cities. Guards abandoned the government palace, and Mas leading lights resigned.

And on Sunday, Gen Williams Kalliman – appointed by Morales under a year ago – appeared on television to “suggest” that the president step down.

As Morales flew north, escaping what he branded a “coup”, the country he ruled for nearly 14 years plunged deeper into uncertainty. Police units tore the Wiphala from their uniforms; others burned the Andean flag. Triumphant rightwing leaders entered the deserted legislature holding Bibles aloft. Crowds jogged through the Morales stronghold of El Alto, promising guns, dynamite and civil war.

“This is a perilous moment,” said Susan Ellison, a Bolivia-focused anthropologist. “Revanchist opposition leaders are already moving to dismantle important gains from the Morales years … [but] the changes Morales came to personify are not tied to any one person alone.”

A self-declared interim administration lead by Jeanine Áñez, a minor lowlands politician and evangelical Christian, promised new elections “soon”. Social media posts attributed to Añez branding Aymara beliefs “satanic” surfaced and her cabinet threatened “seditious” journalists. A deal with Mas to restore constitutional order appears elusive.

If his party demands it, Morales told the Mexican newspaper El Universal on Friday, he will “return to be with the people, to fight against the dictatorship and the coup”.

Áñez responded by saying he was free to come home, but that he would have to respond to allegations of electoral fraud and corruption – and would not be immune from prosecution.