Much of Latin America’s attention is focused on the Oct. 27 elections in Argentina and Uruguay. But there’s a scandalous election in Bolivia on Oct. 20 that should be drawing at least as much international attention. President Evo Morales is likely to win a fourth term and turn Bolivia into a more repressive elected dictatorship.
I spoke with several Bolivia experts in recent days, and virtually all agree that Morales, who has already bent his own constitution several times to stay in power beyond its term limits, will proclaim himself the winner.
“He has an absolute control over all major institutions, to the point that the opposition has little chance of winning, “ says Florida International University political science professor Eduardo Gamarra, a long-time Bolivia watcher. “I would be very surprised if Evo doesn’t win in Sunday’s first-round vote.”
Indeed, Morales, a former coca-growers’ leader of Indian descent, has turned Bolivia’s democratic institutions into a joke.
Despite the fact that the Constitution prohibited him from serving more than two consecutive terms, he called a referendum in 2016 to change the Constitution and be able to run for a new term. He lost that referendum, but that didn’t stop him.
He immediately got the country’s Constitutional Tribunal to disregard the referendum’s result and authorize him to run again, based on the ridiculous claim that denying him the right to run for a new term would be violation of his human rights.
Now, he is running against a field of eight candidates, led by former President Carlos Mesa and opposition senator Oscar Ortiz.
Polls show that Morales has about 36 percent of the vote, followed by Mesa with 27 percent and Ortiz with 8 percent. But most analysts agree that Morales may rig the vote in remote rural areas and reach the 40 percent he needs to win Sunday’s first-round balloting.
A staunch ally of Venezuela, Cuba and Iran, Morales can best be described as a “narcissist-Leninist.” Following the steps of late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, he has built a strong personality cult and uses radical leftist rhetoric.
Critics in Bolivia jokingly refer to him as “Ego” Morales. He has built a $7.1 million museum — the biggest in the country — to glorify his life story in his home village of Orinoca, about six hours by car from the capital. He named it “Museum of the Democratic and Cultural Revolution,” but everybody in Bolivia knows it as “Evo’s Museum.”
More recently, he built a modern 29-story presidential palace that towers over much of the capital, La Paz, and has bought himself a fancy $38 million presidential plane, formerly owned by Britain’s Manchester United soccer team.
“He lives like a pharaoh,” former Bolivian President Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, who supports Mesa’s candidacy, told me.
Like many other Latin American populist leaders, Morales benefited from an economic bonanza thanks to high world commodity prices during his first two terms in office, which allowed Bolivia to grow steadily and reduce poverty. But Morales carried out more prudent macro-economic policies than some of his fellow populist leaders in the region, which helped prevent an economic debacle when commodity prices fell earlier this decade.
Bolivia’s economic fiesta may soon come to an end, however. The country’s natural-gas reserves — one of its main export sources — are almost depleted, and there has been little exploration or major new energy investments.
Morales’ popularity has fallen because of, among other things, his repeated violations of constitutional term limits, his expensive ego trips, corruption scandals and, more recently, his failure to stop massive fires in the Amazon. Critics say Morales gave a green light to farmers to burn forests, in exchange for their political support.
If Morales wins, as expected, he may become a more ruthless ruler. “When the bonanza is finally over, the only thing left for him to stay in power will be repression,” former President Quiroga told me.
As happened in Venezuela, Morales may turn into a crueler tyrant if he wins re-election and runs out of cash.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera