Andres Oppenheimer

This is no joke: Bolivian ruler invokes his 'human right' to stay in power

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales Ayma, left, and United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, pose for handshakes before their meeting at the United Nations, Monday Sept. 18, 2017 at U.N. headquarters.
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales Ayma, left, and United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, pose for handshakes before their meeting at the United Nations, Monday Sept. 18, 2017 at U.N. headquarters. AP

While many of us were trying to absorb the news of the Las Vegas massacre and President Trump’s bungled response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, a growing political scandal in South America went almost unnoticed in the media: Bolivia’s populist President Evo Morales is making an illegal bid to run for a fourth term in office.

Morales’ arguments for clinging to power are so ridiculous that they would be funny if this wasn’t happening in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Despite the fact that the 2009 constitution explicitly prohibits him from running for reelection when his current term expires in 2019 and that he lost a 2016 referendum to allow his re-election, he is happily planning to change the laws and run for a fourth five-year term.

And, believe it or not, his argument is that his own human rights would be violated if he weren’t allowed to run.

Leading legislators from Morales’ Movement for Socialism party recently submitted a petition to the Morales-controlled Justice Tribunal to declare the “unconstitutionality” of the constitutional clause preventing him from running again. The petition says that the current constitution — which was drafted by Morales himself — violates Article 23 of the hemisphere’s American Convention on Human Rights, which establishes that no person should be denied the right to be elected.

Morales’ right to a new term is enshrined in the convention, which supersedes the Bolivian Constitution, according to a quote from Defense Minister Reymi Ferreira in Bolivia’s daily El Mundo on Sept. 21. Ferreira added that Morales’ human right to re-election also supersedes the results of the February 2016 referendum, in which Bolivians rejected the president’s request to be allowed to run again.

A Bolivian government delegation headed by Justice Minister Hector Arce and Chamber of Deputies President Lilly Gabriela Montaño flew to Washington this week to defend Morales’ new re-election bid before the 34-country Organization of American States.

Morales, who changed the constitution in 2009 to allow his re-election at the time, now has begun comparing himself to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She was recently re-elected for a fourth term.

In a Sept. 24 tweet, Morales congratulated Merkel on her re-election, writing that “re-election guarantees the continuity of medium-term and long-term projects.”

But Morales is no Angela Merkel. Merkel, the leader of a parliamentary democracy, can be fired by congress at any moment. Morales heads a system in which the president — especially since Morales took office in 2006 — has near-absolute powers.

Unlike Morales, Merkel is not building expensive museums to herself at taxpayers’ expense. Morales earlier this year dedicated a $7.1 million museum in his home village of Orinoca designed to glorify his life story.

The museum – which includes a life-sized statue of Morales, portraits of him with world leaders, honorary doctorates and soccer shirts he has worn — is now an obligatory field trip for many schools. Not surprisingly, many Bolivians refer to Evo Morales as “Ego” Morales.

Unlike Morales, Merkel is not an enthusiastic supporter of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Morales is not only an unconditional supporter of dictators such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Raul Castro, but is one of the fiercest defenders of Iran.

Unlike Morales, Merkel has not forced opposition politicians into exile, nor does she harass independent media and human rights groups.

Until now, Morales has effectively shielded himself from international criticism by invoking his Indian ancestry and portraying himself as a victim of racial discrimination. When I interviewed him many years ago and asked him if he hadn’t gone too far when saying that “the culture of the west is the culture of death,” he deflected the question by saying that those who criticized him were racists.

But after almost 12 years in office and a long list of abuses of power, Morales’ current effort to once again change the constitution and invalidate the 2016 referendum deserves international condemnation. He should not be allowed to become president for life, nor to insult people’s intelligence by claiming that he has a “human right” to do so.

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