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Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had led the country for 14 years, resigned last week amid heated protests and pressure to leave from the country’s military.
Morales was a transformational figure in the often tumultuous history of the poor South American nation. The son of llama herders, he first rose to prominence as an advocate for coca leaf farmers before being elected as president in 2006 on a far-left socialist platform of redistributing wealth, fighting poverty and empowering the country’s indigenous population.
Morales delivered on much of that platform during his tenure. His policies helped lift millions of Bolivians out of poverty and brought stability to the country’s often erratic economy. As the nation’s first leader with indigenous ancestry, he made major changes to recognize the nation’s native people.
But the goodwill toward Morales began to turn in recent years as he defied democratic restraints to remain in power. The final straw came when an audit of his narrow election victory last month found “clear manipulations” of the vote. This revelation sparked violent protests and eventually forced Morales to flee the country for Mexico. Jeanine Áñez, a senator from Bolivia’s far-right opposition party, named herself interim president in Morales’s absence.
Why there’s debate
Opinions on Morales’s resignation vary widely, with some considering it the result of a military coup and others arguing that he needed to be forced out for his antidemocratic actions. There is also significant concern that his departure could lead to widespread violence between Morales loyalists and supporters of the country’s new regime. Eight people were killed by security forces in a pro-Morales protest on Friday. Protesters have also blocked many of the country’s main roadways, leading to food shortages in major cities.
Even among many who believe Morales’s departure was necessary, there is fear that the regime that replaces him may undo many of the positive results of his leadership, with particular concern that the country’s indigenous population may be marginalized.
The situation, in many ways, can be difficult to fit into the narratives typically applied to regime change. Morales had an undeniably positive effect on his people, but his budding authoritarian tendencies made him a possible threat to Bolivian democracy. His most recent election seemed illegitimate, but the leadership that comes after his departure may be even more of a risk to Bolivia’s future.
Leaders from both the interim government and Morales’s former party have expressed interest in holding new elections within the next 90 days, though a date has yet to be set. From his exile in Mexico, Morales has claimed he is still Bolivia’s president, prompting speculation that his political prospects might not be entirely dead. Áñez, however, has said Morales should be arrested for election fraud if he ever returns to the country.
Morales’s former supporters need to be a part of the country’s political future
“Almost half of Bolivians today are scared, horrified by the collapse of a government that, for all its faults, they felt as their own. Unless there’s a clear plan to incorporate them in a political solution that includes clean elections and guarantees their social and political rights, the transition to democracy could collapse before it gets going.” — Francisco Toro, Washington Post
Morales ruined his legacy through an ill-advised power grab
“It was Morales’s determination to grab a fourth consecutive term, and his alleged rigging of last month’s elections for that purpose, which precipitated his downfall. If he had stood down at the end of his term in January, he would have been widely honoured for his achievements – and hailed as a champion of correct democratic practice in a part of the world notorious for the opposite.” — Editorial, Guardian
Once a savior, Morales became a threat to Bolivian democracy
“Under Mr. Morales, Bolivia was experiencing what has come to be known as democratic backsliding, a process whereby an existing democracy gradually acquires authoritarian features — never fully becoming a full-fledged dictatorship, but significantly undermining checks and balances and pluralism.” — Javier Corrales, New York Times
Bolivia showed that it prioritizes democracy over all else
“Bolivia's and Morales' saga is a reminder to the rest of Latin America — and, indeed, the world — that despite the all-too-visible flaws in democracy, it remains the system that most people prefer. Even a president who has produced good results for his country can throw it all away by ignoring that fact.” — Frida Ghitis, CNN
Bolivia risks losing the progress made under Morales
“In his wake, Jeanine Áñez has assumed power as interim president. She has promised to call new elections soon, but her racist and anti-indigenous rhetoric is evidence that Morales' departure may prove to be a big step backward for Bolivia and its people.” — Benjamin Waddell, The Week
The turmoil highlights a deep racial and cultural divide in the country
“Racist discourses and regional rivalries have re-emerged in a nation divided between a wealthier, more European-descended lowland east and a more indigenous, poorer, highland west.” — Carlos Valdez, Associated Press
Right-wing forces in Bolivia are attempting to impose an authoritarian system
“It’s also important to understand that this coup is not a moment but an ongoing process. The events leading up to Morales’s resignation produced a multifaceted crisis of legitimacy. The far right has seized the opportunity presented by that crisis — and is using it to try to remold Bolivia.” — Zeeshan Aleem, Nation
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters