In the decade since he took office, Bolivian President Evo Morales has become one of Latin America’s most recognizable political icons. With his helmet of black hair and colorful Aymara garb, he’s cultivated a reputation as the pragmatic face of South American socialism.
He’s also cultivated the aura of being unstoppable. As his ideological allies have stumbled throughout the region, Morales won his third consecutive race in 2014 with more than 60 percent of the vote. And polls continue to rank him as one of Latin America’s most popular presidents.
So when he sought to change the constitution, once again, to allow him to throw his hat in the ring for a fourth term (2020-25), many thought the nation would oblige. It didn’t.
A combination of corruption scandals, a turning economic tide and growing regional discontent with the status quo narrowly doomed his aspirations. Three days after Sunday’s vote, and amid growing protests, Morales conceded defeat. The electoral body reported that the “No” vote won by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent.
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Morales called the loss a victory in the face of what he called an opposition “dirty war.” And he also resorted to an old cliché: “We lost the battle but not the war.”
As analysts prowled that battlefield this week, some wondered just how critical the vote was for Latin America’s once-ascendant left.
In the last months we’ve seen what I would have to call an end of a cycle of populism in Latin America.
Jaime Aparicio, former Bolivian ambassador to U.S.
“The referendum marks a before and after for Bolivia but it’s also directly related to what’s happening in the region,” said Jaime Aparicio, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United States from 2002-06. “In the last months we’ve seen what I would have to call an end of a cycle of populism in Latin America.”
Argentina — once firmly in the hands of Kirchnerismo — is now in the arms of Mauricio Macri, whose capitalist credentials were burnished as a sports and media mogul. In Brazil, a series of corruption scandals and general discontent are threatening the presidency of Dilma Rousseff. And in Venezuela, the birthplace of 21st century socialism, the newly empowered opposition is plotting ways to cut short President Nicolás Maduro’s tenure.
But Bolivia’s results may be more about perpetuity than policy. Bolivians, by and large, back Morales’ economic course, which has focused on spreading the country’s mineral and energy wealth to the rural poor. Since taking office in 2006, the economy has seen annual average growth of more than 5 percent.
“I don’t think [the vote] was really a criticism of Evo Morales; he still remains personally popular and people like his policies,” said Peter Siavelis, the director of Latin American and Latino Studies at Wake Forest University. “But I think it shows that people are a little bit uncomfortable with this idea of one party, one-man rule.”
Raul Gallegos, with Control Risks, a global consultancy, agreed, saying Bolivian politics are too idiosyncratic to extrapolate on the results.
While voters were obviously uncomfortable with Morales’ plans to stay in power through 2025, “I don’t buy the idea that this is a [move] toward neo-liberalism or anti-socialism or however you want to portray it. It’s much more nuanced.”
Though the vote was confined to landlocked Bolivia, it nevertheless had particular resonance in Venezuela. Morales has been one of Caracas’ staunchest allies, and when he won in 2014 he dedicated his “anti-capitalist” victory to Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
In the wake of Sunday’s vote, Maduro’s foes said the referendum proved that it was the people who determined the duration of their leaders.
Maduro “has to feel cornered” by events in Bolivia, Aparicio said.
“He’s just seen what has happened to a president who is much more popular and with an economy that is in relatively good shape,” he said. “He must know that he needs to find a solution for his own crisis.”
One of the bulwarks of Morales’ popularity has been his image of honesty. Even as corruption scandals broke out around him, he managed to stay clean. But that has changed in recent months.
In December, authorities announced they were investigating more than 200 people for embezzling millions from the now-defunct Indigenous Fund, which financed rural development. Investigators found that money was funneled into the private accounts of some of Morales’ close associates, including leaders of unions and grassroots social movements.
On the heels of that scandal came revelations that a former girlfriend of Morales had won hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts on behalf of Chinese companies. Then, last week, just days before the votes, a mob attacked El Alto’s city hall, which is in the hands of the opposition, leaving six officials dead.
While state-run media said the protest had been over school infrastructure, there were rumors that the mobs wanted to destroy evidence that linked the former ruling-party mayor to wrongdoing.
“There’s just this feeling that corruption has become a cancer,” Aparicio said.
By no means is Morales a lame duck. He will remain in power through 2019 and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) remains powerful. He has promised to use his remaining time to deepen his economic reforms, aimed at reducing poverty through investments in energy, mining, agriculture and technology.
But there’s also something else he’s likely to focus on: his legacy.
“Right now he has no obvious successor,” Siavelis said. “But he will finger someone at some point…. But Morales will obviously be the power behind the throne.”
The struggle for succession (Vice President Álvaro García is also sidelined by Sunday’s vote) combined with challenging economic times could prove a struggle for the administration.
“We do expect for the next couple of years to be very difficult for his government,” said Gallegos with Control Risks. “There will be more infighting within the MAS.… The big question is who will be the leadership that will carry it forward.”
Morales has been vague about his future. In the days after the vote he said he’d happily return to his farm and grow coca or oranges. Morales — who often plays pickup games of soccer when he travels abroad — has also said he would like to be involved with sports.
But some wonder if the relatively young Morales — he’s 56 — will ease into retirement gracefully. Some say it’s not hard to imagine him making one last run at keeping the throne.
“If he sees his popularity rise over the next four years I don’t think [another referendum] is out of the question,” Aparicio said. “It would be absolutely absurd, of course, but I wouldn’t underestimate the president’s ability to maneuver.”