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Eleven months ago, the White House celebrated a dramatic change of power in Bolivia. Protests and a mutiny among security forces followed a disputed election, in which long-ruling President Evo Morales had sought a controversial fourth term in office. Facing the prospect of looming violence at home, Morales stepped down and fled the country. An interim regime took his place, led by the marginal right-wing senator Jeanine Áñez.
The Trump administration hailed the fall of another leftist government in the Western hemisphere, linking Morales’s rule to the embattled regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua. “Morales’s departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard,” President Trump said in a statement last November. “We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere.”
But, almost a year later, the tables have turned. On Sunday, Bolivian voters delivered what looks like a landslide presidential election victory to Luis Arce, a Morales ally and former finance minister. Though the official counting of ballots was not complete, exit polls showed a roughly 20 point gap between Arce, the candidate of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, and his nearest competitor, former president Carlos Mesa.
Mesa conceded on Monday, saying the gap between him and Arce was “wide” and that “it is up to us, those of us who believe in democracy, to recognize that there has been a winner in this election.”
Morales may return home after dividing time over the past year between Mexico and Argentina, though he could still face legal charges. While he remained in power, he was one of the last surviving leaders of the so-called “pink tide” — an era beginning in the mid-2000s when leftist, populist leaders came to the fore in Latin America as part of a wider backlash to years of elite-driven, neoliberal governance. These included figures like the charismatic Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Like them, Morales campaigned for the downtrodden and the poor. He nationalized state resources, presided over a significant reduction of poverty and worked to uplift the country’s indigenous communities. “During Morales’s three terms, the socialists were credited with a successful drive to turn Bolivia into a leader in the effort to fight poverty in Latin America,” my colleagues reported. “At the same time, they embraced a ‘Socialist lite’ approach that maintained relatively business-friendly policies — especially as compared to the far more repressive and severe socialist government in Venezuela.”
But Morales became a polarizing figure in the later years of his reign. On questionable grounds, a Bolivian court overturned the verdict of a 2016 referendum, in which Bolivians had voted against extending constitutionally-mandated term limits. Morales’s opponents saw him as a would-be tyrant and framed their takeover as a restoration of the country’s democracy. They joined the ranks of the anti-“pink tide” backlash that had already seen the rise of far-right firebrand President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Bolivia’s democracy, though, has delivered Morales’s movement back to power. Áñez faced widespread anger for her interim administration’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as its brutal repression of leftists and Morales supporters. It also repeatedly deferred the election date, adding to the perception that it was a regime of usurpers terrified of losing their thin mandate.
Some experts suggest the tumult could have been avoided. “If Evo had stepped down as he was constitutionally required to do at the end of his third term . . . this is the election Bolivia would have had a year ago,” Jim Shultz, founder of the Bolivia-focused Democracy Center, told Today’s WorldView. “That would have spared the country a year of human rights violations and incompetent government during the pandemic.”
What happened in Bolivia could be seen as “a quick version of the failure of the right-wing reaction to the ‘pink’ tide,” Shultz added. “There are reasons why populist governments are popular,” and all the more so in an age of public health calamity and mounting economic inequity.
Arce’s victory adds to the sense of momentum behind socialist or left-leaning politics elsewhere in the region. Lula appears to be readying a new challenge against Bolsonaro after he was released last year from prison, where he had been jailed on corruption charges he and his supporters say are politically motivated. This weekend, Chileans will cast ballots for a referendum on the rewriting of their constitution, a vote that follows months of protests clamoring for sweeping political and social reforms.
Arce kept his distance from Morales throughout his candidacy and has pledged conciliation with the country’s rival factions. “We have recovered democracy,” he said in a speech Monday. “We promise to respond to our pledge to work and bring our program to fruition. We are going to govern for all Bolivians and construct a government of national unity.”