With the election of Arce, who was Morales’s finance minister, the constitutional order has either been reestablished or preserved, depending on one’s point of view. “Normally, a coup d’etat is when a democratic constitutional process is interrupted. I wouldn’t call it a coup d’etat,” said Gabriel Baracatt, president of an NGO that works on environmental issues and trains citizens in democratic participation. Gabriel spoke to me via Zoom during a bumpy ride in his jeep. He was on his way to visit a project site outside Santa Cruz. “How can you call what happened a coup d’etat when Evo’s own party endorsed the extension of his constitutional mandate and designated the electoral judges?... [T]he institutional mechanisms collapsed after the failed reelection, which led people to lose trust and to mobilize. People mention the military intervention...but what they don’t mention is that it was the social base that asked the president to step aside.”
Still, it was only after the military got involved that Morales decided to resign, and that fact alone seems to indicate that this was indeed a coup. Most of the coups catalogued in Edward N. Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, an influential academic work on the subject, involve the police or armed forces (though Luttwak himself, who lives in Bolivia, has expressed skepticism about using the word “coup” in this case.) Writing for Jacobin, the New York University historian Greg Grandin argues that “pretty much anytime the military intervenes to change regimes, it is a coup.”
“Un conjunto de luces y sombras” is how Baracatt describes Morales’s fourteen years in power—a collection of lights and shadows. “Without a doubt, we can say that much progress was made in social mobility, inclusion—today, Bolivia is a country with new elites,” Baracatt says. These elites come from the indigenous and mestizo populations that were once excluded from leading roles in society. The rise of an Aymara to the highest office in the land was a boost for the social integration of indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Maria Luisa Urrelo, executive secretary of the Red de Solidaridad y Apostolado Indígena (Indigenous Solidarity and Apostolate Network), told me that “discrimination against the señoras de pollera [women in traditional indigenous dress] and against people from the countryside” was a much more serious problem before Morales became president. “The insults used to be loud and open. This was noticeably reduced.”
This change was partly the result of government programs that were designed specifically to help citizens from indigenous communities. The bono Juancito Pinto (named after a legendary child soldier in Bolivia’s war against Chile) provided cash payments to families to keep their kids in school. The bono Juana Azurduy (named after a guerrilla leader) was designed to reduce infant mortality and maternal deaths. Those programs for the young were complemented by the Renta Dignidad, a minimum pension for Bolivians older than sixty-five. The poverty rate fell by around 20 percent during those years. There was also notable progress in literacy and access to water. Urrelo mentions another new institution that is emblematic of the Morales era: the Plurinational Games, which allowed Bolivian youth from around the country to gather for athletic and academic competitions. “It was something that didn’t exist before.... [The games] allowed a group of young people to be seen, to grow, and demonstrate their potential.”
This movement toward greater integration, though briefly overshadowed by the events of last year, will have a lasting historical legacy. Herbert Klein, a leading historian of Latin America, argues that the rise of the new elite during Morales’s tenure was the fulfillment of a transformation that began with the 1952 revolution, after which land was partitioned and redistributed among indigenous people throughout most of Bolivia. I spoke with a development project manager who works with indigenous communities on problems having to do with climate change, water access, and other environmental issues. (He asked that his name not be used.) While recognizing the “complexity” of Morales’s time in power, he told me that “Evo did a lot for this country. Bolivia did not have a historical outcome like Peru, which had sixty-nine thousand killed by the Shining Path.... How do you explain this? Because Bolivia has also had political conflict and trauma, but has always found a way to strike a deal. We are a country that comes right up to the abyss, but we make a deal and immediately go forward toward the next abyss.”
Morales’s legacy was cemented fairly early in his presidency, with the ratification of the 2009 constitution, which redefines the Bolivian state as a union of nationalities, and invokes the principle of “interculturality” as a touchstone for unity. It guarantees communal land rights to indigenous communities, and speaks respectfully of traditional indigenous cosmology, medicine, symbols, dress, and rituals. It also recognizes thirty-seven indigenous tongues, along with Spanish, as the official languages of Bolivia.
But Morales’s presidency also had its share of what Baracatt calls “shadows.” His critics claim that a dangerous cult of personality had developed around him, and that he started taking advantage of this by the end of his tenure to gain yet more power for himself. His early personal history is certainly impressive. Born to the Aymara people of the Andes, Morales grew up poor in a small village of the mountainous Oruro department in western Bolivia. He paid for his own studies by working as a bricklayer, a trumpet player, and a baker. He rose through the political ranks as an activist. His talents as a leader were clear early on. But the same fiery anti-colonial rhetoric and flamboyant gestures of defiance that inspired his followers alarmed members of Bolivia’s political establishment—and not only because they regarded him as a threat to their own power. They also worried that, once in power, Morales would take aim at civil liberties. As president, he lamented that Bolivia enjoys an “exaggerated freedom of expression,” and he leveraged state control over media licensing to manage public perception of his government. On a personal level, he might have an even darker side: last August, the Ministry of Justice charged Morales with “rape and human trafficking,” and launched an investigation whose results are pending. But his biggest political failures may have had to do with natural resources, the environment, and indigenous autonomy.
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