Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, who took office 10 years ago and is convening a constitutional referendum Sunday to allow him to run for re-election in 2019, is often described in world media as a benign autocrat. Despite his fiery anti-capitalist rhetoric, he is carrying out responsible economic policies, we have read many times.
In reality, Morales is destroying his country. In recent days, a political-sexual scandal involving a young woman who had a child with Morales and has since become a top executive of a Chinese company that is a major government contractor has exposed much of what is wrong with Morales’ authoritarian government.
The scandal came to light Feb. 3, when tv journalist Carlos Valverde revealed that Morales had fathered a child with a young woman named Gabriela Zapata in 2007, when she was between seventeen and nineteen years old, and that Zapata has since become a top executive of a major Chinese corporation that has received more than $500 million in government contracts.
Showing an eight-page newspaper advertorial of China’s CAMC Engineering firm in a local newspaper that presented Zapata as one of the company’s top executives in Bolivia, the journalist reported that CAMC has become one of the largest government contractors. And a sizable part of the government contracts with CAMC to build roads, railroads and other public works were signed after Zapata joined the company in 2013.
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At first, the Morales government denied the whole story. As it usually does with any bad news, it blamed “U.S. imperialism” for spreading lies about the self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist president in order to discredit him ahead of Sunday’s referendum.
But as reports about the Morales-Zapata-CAMC scandal exploded in social media, Morales conceded that he had indeed had a child with Zapata, but said that the boy — named Ernesto Fidel Morales, presumably after Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro — had died, and that he had not seen Zapata in at least five years.
Shortly thereafter, a 2015 picture of Morales with a hand over Zapata’s shoulder at a recent Carnival celebration popped up in Bolivia’s social media, contradicting his assertion that he hadn’t seen her in years. Morales then said that people constantly approach him for pictures, and that he had not recognized Zapata. Many incredulous Bolivian responded, “Yeah, sure!”
Valverde, the TV journalist who broke the Zapata story, said in his TV show that he doesn’t care how many children Morales has, or with whom, but that Zapata’s role as the sales manager for a Chinese company that is benefitting from huge contracts with the Morales government smacks of corruption.
The Zapata scandal also raises the question of whether Morales is not mortgaging his country’s future in shady deals with Chinese companies. In a country with virtually no checks and balances, where Morales has taken control of the legislative power, the judiciary, much of the media, and has intimidated leading opposition politicians into silence or exile, very little is known about these government contracts.
China is already Bolivia’s largest creditor, and reportedly has taken $7.5 billion line of credit from China.
Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College, says this will double Bolivia’s national debt at a time when prices of the country’s main export commodities are at record lows. Morales is giving too many government contracts to Chinese firms, in exchange for very little, Ellis says.
Bolivia’s $1.8 billion in imports from China last year exceeded its exports to that country by more than 4-to-1.
“Even leaving aside the possibility of nepotism and favoritism, and the risk of mortgaging Bolivia’s revenues, an extraordinarily high number of these projects have been also plagued by delays and difficulties,” Ellis says.
My opinion: The Zapata case, like other Morales government corruption cases before, proves that there’s no such thing as a benevolent autocrat.
Countries without strong systems of checks and balances sooner or later result in massive corruption and mismanagement. Morales’ authoritarian rule — which he now wants to extend for another term that could allow him to stay in power until 2025 — is breeding massive corruption, and a foreign debt with China that will haunt Bolivians for generations.
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Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español
Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald Speakers Series
Columnist Andres Oppenheimer interviews former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at 8 a.m. on Feb. 29 at Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus. The event will be in Spanish. Tickets are $25 in advance. Purchase at elnuevoheraldeventos.com.