Bolivia's Evo Morales pleads for peace, but his resignation leaves severe political conflict

“After all we’ve been through, there’s a feeling of powerlessness,” says a college student and Morales supporter who's worried over what comes next.
Image: Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks at a press conference in La Paz on Oct. 24, 2019.
Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks at a press conference in La Paz on Oct. 24, 2019.Aizar Raldes / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Suzanne Gamboa and Ludwig Hurtado

The reluctant resignation of Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, has thrown the country into turmoil, deepened divisions internally and abroad and left its citizens fearing the future.

On Monday, Morales tweeted for peace between Bolivians. “I am making an urgent appeal to resolve any differences with dialogue," he said. Hours later, Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted that Morales was on a Mexican government plane "to ensure his safe transfer to our country," where he will receive asylum.

But Bolivians who oppose Morales, as well as those who support him, are worried about what comes next.

Esteban Salinas Lopez, 24, a veterinarian in Cochabamba, told NBC News he and his friends were ecstatic when they heard Morales had resigned and gathered in the town plaza to celebrate.

“But after a while, we started feeling more and more tense," said Salinas Lopez, who's worried his country could follow in the footsteps of Venezuela, which has been in economic and political freefall.

Morales, whose socialist government was in power for almost 14 years, resigned Sunday amid massive protests that were growing more violent and after the military publicly urged him to step down. An audit by the Organization of American States found election irregularities and “clear manipulations” of the voting system, and recommended the elections be annulled.

But Morales, who achieved social and economic reforms that had helped lift many Bolivians from poverty and improved the rights of indigenous communities, still has solid support.

Protesters burn campaign posters of the ruling party outside the Supreme Electoral Court in La Paz, Bolivia, on Oct. 21, 2019.Juan Karita / AP

Carla Flores Morales, a 20-year-old university student in Cochabamba and a Morales supporter, believes he did win the election democratically. She said that many indigenous people in the country have had their homes pillaged by those opposed to Morales and worries that without him, the country will step backwards.

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“After all we’ve been through, there’s a feeling of powerlessness,” Flores Morales said.

Several of Morales's senior government officials, who might have temporarily stepped in as president until another election was held, also resigned, leaving a power vacuum.

On Monday, Jeanine Añez, the Senate's second vice-president and a member of the opposition, said in a tearful address that she would take temporary control of the Senate though it was not clear if this would require a vote from the national assembly, which still has many Morales backers.

Outside Bolivia, the debate over whether Morales bowed to public pressure or was forced to step down by the military intensified as the international community weighed in, with Ebrard, the Mexican foreign minister, saying it was a coupbecause the military put pressure on him to stand down, which goes against the country's constitution.

This view was echoed in the U.S. by two politicians of the left, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who tweeted it was a coup, not a democracy, that was taking place in Bolivia, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who tweeted that "the military, after weeks of political unrest, intervened to remove President Evo Morales."

This was in contrast to President Donald Trump, who said in a statement on Monday that Morales' resignation was a "significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere," adding that the U.S. applauded the Bolivian military "for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution."

Historic gains, then waning support

Morales lifted about 1 million of the country's 11 million people out of dire poverty, said Robert Albaro, research associate professor at American University's Center for Latin American & Latino Studies. One of his great political accomplishments is what some call the "de-colonization of the state and enfranchisement of the indigenous majority as citizens," he said.

Morales' administration was successful in running the nation's economy and despite being left-leaning and socialist, it operated within global capitalism in ways that were considered "adroit," Albaro said. Morales relied on extractions of hydrocarbons and natural gas and directed revenue from them to the social safety net and programs such as retirement and education, Albaro said.

But one of Morales' flaws was that he was "frequently vulnerable to the idea that he is a historically transformative figure and as (one) he and he alone can finish the broad social transformation of society that had been undertaken," Albaro said. "He was drinking his own Kool-Aid."

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking during a press conference in El Alto, on Nov. 9, 2019. -AFP - Getty Images

Morales was unwilling to give up his power. Elected in 2005, he was trying for his fourth term as president, even though the constitution he rewrote in 2009 limits the president to two terms.

Morales' support further waned over some of his decisions affecting the environment. Protests escalated after wildfires that started in May and worsened in the summer charred millions of hectares of the Amazon forest. The fires were seen by some as a consequence of policies of Morales' administration that expanded agricultural use of land in forested areas.

Kurt Weyland, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, said Morales’ government boasted about 4-5 percent economic growth a year,and his movement did elevate the poor indigenous people of the country.

But Morales was a paternalistic leader who never cultivated a strong No. 2, Weyland said.

Those within his socialist movement “didn’t want to have competition, even inside their own movement. They didn’t build up a potential successor that could have had interest in — and the influence to — push them out,” Weyland said.

“With Evo Morales, everything depended on him and he wanted everything to depend on him,” he said.

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