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Evo Morales’s Chaotic Departure Won’t Define His Legacy

History won’t remember him for the ongoing unrest, but for the enfranchisement of Bolivia’s indigenous population.

A supporter of former Bolivian President Evo Morales
A supporter of former Bolivian President Evo Morales stands in front of graffiti that reads "Long live Evo" during a protest in La Paz, Bolivia, on Nov. 14. Gaston Brito Miserocch/Getty Images

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In the wake of Evo Morales’s departure from office earlier this month after nearly 14 years as president of Bolivia, the country is in political chaos. More than 30 people have died as a result of ongoing unrest, and protests over the weekend led to food shortages in some cities. Interim President Jeanine Áñez has promised new elections, but the timeline remains unclear.

In the wake of Evo Morales’s departure from office earlier this month after nearly 14 years as president of Bolivia, the country is in political chaos. More than 30 people have died as a result of ongoing unrest, and protests over the weekend led to food shortages in some cities. Interim President Jeanine Áñez has promised new elections, but the timeline remains unclear.

Morales’s exit, amid pressure from the military and mass protests, was a mess, and the country faces an uncertain political future. But Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, won’t be remembered primarily for his abrupt resignation, the turmoil that followed, or even for the democratic backsliding that marked the latter years of his presidency. His legacy will be the transformation of Bolivian society through the enfranchisement of the country’s indigenous population.

Morales’s national political career was born in the mid-1980s amid the contention generated by the long U.S.-led crackdown on drugs in Bolivia, during which he served as the paramount leader of coca grower unions in the Chapare region, where the majority of Bolivian coca is grown. Coca has been a traditional crop among the indigenous people of the Andes for centuries. Chewed or brewed as tea, it is a mild stimulant, ubiquitous in Bolivia. But it can be refined into cocaine—the international trade in which much of the country’s crop ultimately winds up. The Chapare was ground zero for decades of low-intensity war between coca growers and both Bolivian and U.S. law enforcement.

Coca growers are largely migrants from other mostly highland parts of the country. A large number of these are former miners, laid off en masse as casualties of fiscal austerity measures and economic restructuring in Bolivia instituted in 1985, which downsized the national mining company. Early on, Morales quickly became an implacable critic of the negative effects of global capitalism in Bolivia, an issue he understood as directly connected to his later efforts, as president, to decolonize the state and enfranchise its majority indigenous population.

Indigenous people in what is now Bolivia have been subject to some 500 years of pervasive racial discrimination dating back to Spanish colonialism. Ruled by European-descended elites, society was long divided into hierarchical castes, with “brute Indians” at the bottom, shut out of political power or representation, and often forced into economically exploitative arrangements of peonage. This did not begin to change until Bolivia’s 1952 revolution, when indigenous peoples were offered full citizenship—but not formally categorized by the state as indigenous, but as non-ethnic rural farmers, or campesinos. Intense poverty and lack of access to the levers of power were innate facts of life for indigenous people into the early 2000s.

Until fairly recently, the Chapare’s coca growers were routinely described as penny capitalist or small-scale agriculturalists. But, amid efforts to project their concerns and to build international networks of solidarity, by the mid-1990s coca growers were increasingly moved to represent their cause as one of the collective struggle of an indigenous movement. They began to insist that coca was more than just a cash crop—it was their cultural patrimony. They more proactively took on the trappings of Andean cultural identity and promoted their goals in the terms of international indigenous advocacy, emphasizing collective rights of autonomy and self-determination, including rights to territory and to control over their own economic development. In this environment, for Morales, questions of class and ethnicity were closely allied and in fact deeply intermingled. Indigenous peoples were at once among the poorest Bolivians but also the most politically marginalized. This double vision would inform his policy priorities throughout his more than decade as the country’s president.

At the turn of the 21st century, as anti-drug efforts continued unabated in the Chapare, Bolivia was the scene of a succession of spectacular conflicts over the control of resources, beginning with the so-called Water War in 2000 and continuing through several Gas Wars in 2003 and 2005. The Water War saw massive popular protests in response to the government’s attempt to sell off the public water works for the city of Cochabamba, substantially raising people’s water bills. The Gas Wars, which mainly unfolded in the largely indigenous city of El Alto, were a series of popular mobilizations rejecting the government’s strategy for exploitation of its substantial natural gas reserves.

These conflicts all shared several characteristics: a perception among ordinary Bolivians that their country’s sovereignty was being violated by transnational corporate interests with whom their government was complicit; large-scale mass mobilization against the privatization of these nonrenewable national resources; grassroots critiques of neoliberalism as a national policy framework; the effective building of a coalition of urban working classes, professionals, students, and indigenous groups—brought together in highly visible protest actions and calls for the more direct exercise of democracy in Bolivia.

Throughout this turbulent period, Morales emerged as the country’s most important social movement leader, able to mobilize large numbers of coca grower unionists and coordinate with other popular sectors for protest marches that repeatedly occupied urban public spaces between 2000 and 2005. While Morales is of Aymara descent—Bolivia’s second-largest indigenous group—these were popular-indigenous mobilizations. Morales ably connected issues previously understood as specific to indigenous groups with other hot-button issues of broad concern to Bolivians, such as the defense of national sovereignty—loosely modeled on indigenous self-determination—or a long-standing call by indigenous activists to rewrite the national constitution to make it more inclusive, subsequently taken up by nonindigenous protesters as well.

Morales ably connected issues previously understood as specific to indigenous groups with other hot-button issues of broad concern to Bolivians, such as the defense of national sovereignty.

When Morales defied the pundits and won the 2005 presidential election with a decisive and unusually high 54 percent of the vote, the day before his inauguration he held a ceremony among the ruins of ancient Tiwanaku. More than 10,000 supporters waved wiphalas, the flag of indigenous nationalism. Morales received a blessing from an Aymara ritual specialist, accepted a traditional staff of authority, and offered thanks to the Pachamama, an Andean cosmological figure. Back in the city, he performed a ritual libation of thanks. During the Morales years, the public optics for his administration emphasized the “refounding of Bolivia” as an “indigenous” country, reversing decades, and centuries, when indigenous heritage was largely kept out of public view. Now, it was everywhere in Bolivia’s public sphere.

A major front in Morales’s effort to decolonize the Bolivian state was the machinery of state itself. Once in office, he filled 14 of 16 cabinet posts with people of indigenous descent, including women de pollera, that is, who wear the colorful gathered skirts and bowler hats associated with highland indigenous descent throughout the Andean world. Bolivia’s national government was suddenly made up of indigenous activists and intellectuals who often publicly framed major policy issues in indigenous terms, presented themselves as representing the country’s indigenous and indigenous-descended populations, but also nonindigenous citizens, and frequently used indigenous languages and concepts in their public appearances.

At the same time, Morales’s political party, the Movement Toward Socialism, became the country’s dominant political force, which opened opportunities for indigenous leaders to enter politics as town and city mayors, and at the regional and local levels. It would soon become the majority party in the national legislature. Morales’s movement is in large part responsible for a massive increase of indigenous participation in the national political process at all levels.

Perhaps the most important of Morales’s accomplishments was his success leading an often contentious effort to rewrite the nation’s constitution, completed in 2009. Perhaps the most important of Morales’s accomplishments was his success leading an often contentious effort to rewrite the nation’s constitution. This new constitution radically recasts the republic’s governing framework, defining the Bolivian state as both “plurinational” and “communitarian.” It grants liberal citizenship and new forms of collective indigenous citizenship equal standing, specifying distinct indigenous rights and forms of cultural, political, and juridical autonomy throughout its 411 articles. The 2009 constitution summarizes and codifies a major change in governance priorities, of historical proportions. If it outlives Morales’s tenure in office, it is surely to be remembered as his most substantial achievement.

Morales can be credited with moving Bolivia’s indigenous majority much more to the center of the country’s public and political life. To be indigenous and hold political office is now not unusual, as it was for most of the country’s history. The country’s radio, television, and online media routinely offers indigenous cultural content. Indigenous people in Bolivia are no longer second-class citizens but fully enfranchised as “indigenous.” Indigenous concepts such as “living well” (in Quechua: sumak kawsay), used as a contrast to the carbon-heavy global economy, were even cornerstones of the Morales administration’s forays into international climate policy.

These are transformational and historically consequential achievements. The second half of Morales’s tenure, however, saw more conflict with indigenous constituencies, often over competing indigenous and state priorities. Most notable among these was the 2011 TIPNIS controversy: Morales’s plan to facilitate trade with Brazil by building a highway through a national park, also containing indigenous territories, provoked a backlash. With some cause, indigenous advocates saw the highway as a betrayal privileging the country’s extraction-based national economic model over the rights of particular indigenous groups. Morales never successfully resolved this conflict of interests during his years in office. At the same time, growing numbers of upwardly mobile city dwellers of indigenous descent, while appreciative of Morales’s efforts, over time grew disgruntled with his administration’s perceived exclusive focus on indigenous questions rather than economic opportunities for all, and with his disinclination to leave office.

What remains to be seen is the degree to which Morales’s policies will endure. Áñez, Bolivia’s interim president, has insisted that hers is a caretaker administration, with the sole purpose of instituting new elections. But her actions so far have been concerning. She first appeared on the national political scene in 2006 as a representative from Beni, a remote region, to Bolivia’s constitutional assembly, and as a vocal critic of the Morales administration. She has reportedly described indigenous cultures as “satanic” and brought a Bible to her inauguration, insisting that Bolivia is a Catholic country. She has stacked her interim cabinet with nonindigenous conservatives from the eastern lowlands, political and economic elites sharply critical of Morales, and shows no sign of conciliation with his party or supporters. Most disturbingly, in the name of restoring order, she authorized a crackdown by Bolivia’s security forces, resulting in the deaths of nine protesting coca growers on Friday. These are not the actions of a caretaker, lacking a public mandate. While it is hard to imagine at this point that the enfranchisement of indigenous people in Bolivia could ever return to pre-Morales levels, Áñez appears poised to take steps in that direction. If she or whoever succeeds her takes that path, Bolivia is in for an extended period of social and political upheaval.

Robert Albro is a research associate professor at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. He is an expert on urban and indigenous politics in Bolivia and on Latin American social and indigenous movements.

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