After 14 years, is Bolivia falling out of love with Evo Morales?

After 14 years, is Bolivia falling out of love with Evo Morales?

At Bolivia’s largest museum, perched on a hill in an isolated Andean village one item stands out. Itis a replica of a makeshift football covered in white cloth that Bolivia’s President Evo Morales usedto play with as a small child, in between school lessons and herding llamas on the chilly plateau.

The $7.2m museum is dedicated to explaining the extraordinary rise of Mr Morales — Latin America’s longest-sitting president — from a childhood being raised in a hut on the breezy shoresof Lake Poopó to spending nearly 14 years as president. He now runs the country from a 25-storey presidential palace he built in the capital La Paz.

Mr Morales was one of a generation of leftwing leaders who came to power in the first decade ofthe century and surfed the wave of the China-led commodities boom to push more redistributive policies.

The bright hopes that many of his peers raised have since been dashed. In Brazil, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is in jail after being convicted of corruption and the economy has suffereda traumatic fall. The unravelling of Hugo Chávez’s revolution in Venezuela has led to one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses.

Bolivia, however, has continued to prosper, even after commodity prices fell. During Mr Morales’stime in office, the country’s gross domestic product has quadrupled.

“I would never vote for anyone else,” says Walter Vilca, a quinoa and potato farmer from Orinoca, standing outside the wattle-and-daub hut where his “brother president” grew up.

He adds that Mr Morales has brought stability to a once-divided country — Bolivia’s presidency had five office-holders in the five years before he took office. Mr Morales also produced tangible improvements in the day-to-day lives of poor Bolivians like himself, fuelling a new sense of dignity.

“I played with a cloth ball like him. Now, we have a football pitch with synthetic grass here, andfood every day,” says Mr Vilca. “We have all we need.

” But as he prepares to run on October 20 for an unprecedented fourth term as president — after what critics believe was a bungled attempt to get around constitutional term limits — Mr Morales faces a series of profound questions.

There are warning signs that the strong economic run could be running out of steam — last year’s4.2 per cent rise in GDP, according to government statistics, was partly the result of anunsustainably high budget deficit. And in a country where many young people only remember himas president, the 59-year-old leader is facing growing criticism that he is becoming autocratic.

Opponents say he holds sway over the courts and accuse members of his government of corruption. With no named heir-apparent, some allies worry about a cult of personality around Mr Morales —the sort of uncritical admiration that finds expression in expensive museums and shiny presidential palaces.

“Politics is not a profession, it is a lasting passion for the people,” Mr Morales tells the Financial Times, adding that “it is a request from the Bolivian people” that he runs again. “People tell me, ‘Evo, if you do well, we’ll do well’.

”Comments like these have alienated a section of the president’s support. While political opponents warn about the risks to Bolivia’s democracy. “If we continue with Señor Morales as president, we will go from authoritarianism to dictatorship,” says Carlos Mesa, a former president and his main election challenger.

“Bolivia is not on the path to becoming Venezuela,” says a foreign diplomat in La Paz. “But its democratic credentials are definitely being tested.”

Mr Morales is ethnically an Aymara — one of Bolivia’s main groups, which make up roughly two-thirds of its 11m population. He was the first indigenous president of a country traditionally ruled by members of the small group of white citizens or the larger minority of mestizo Bolivians, whose ancestry includes Europeans and indigenous people. Until Mr Morales took office, theindigenous majority were often treated as second-class citizens.

It was his connection to the rural poor, those such as Mr Vilca, that secured his first presidential term with 54 per cent of the vote. He built on that to win again in 2009 with 64 per cent of the vote after the constitution was changed to allow immediate re-election. In 2014, he had the support of61 per cent of voters.

Those victories were built on a strong economy. The commodity price boom that began in 2003 lifted Bolivia and much of the rest of the region. Yet while neighbours Argentina and Brazil struggled after commodity prices started to fall in 2014, Bolivia has grown at an average of 4.9 percent a year between 2006 and 2018. The IMF forecasts the Andean nation’s GDP will grow 4 percent this year, which would once again be the fastest rate in South America.

Unlike other members of Latin America’s “pink tide” of leftwing governments, where economic mismanagement has undermined many of the earlier gains, Bolivia has run prudent macro economic policies for much of Mr Morales’s presidency. His government has been more adept than most in the region at managing the commodities windfall.

In gas and mineral-rich Bolivia, the basis of Mr Morales’s economic model — which critics dub a form of “state capitalism”— was to renationalise resources and redistribute tax receipts in order to fuel internal consumption.

For Jim Shultz, of the Democracy Center, a US think-tank focused on Bolivia, Mr Morales hasfigured out a simple formula to promote popular redistributionist policies: “Yank wealth out of the ground and invest in things Bolivian governments have not invested in before that benefit regular people.

”Bolivia’s deputy president, Álvaro García Linera, calls this a “flexible blend of a market and aplanned economy” that has fuelled a consumer boom. The elements include higher minimum wages, cash transfer schemes and a string of public works such as a $674m transit cable-car systemin La Paz.

The strong record of economic growth has seen extreme poverty rates fall from 38 per cent since Mr Morales first took office in 2006, to 15 per cent in 2018, while poverty has almost halved from60 per cent to 34 per cent, according to official data compiled by the Inter-American Development Bank. In the same period, GDP per capita grew from $1,000 to over $3,600, boosting supermarket and restaurant sales by over 900 per cent, according to data from the finance ministry.

Redistributionist policies have raised living standards in one of the region’s poorest nations and have helped to dissolve enmity between opposing political camps. Secessionist calls in pockets ofthe eastern lowlands have melted away and businessmen have joined his socialist chorus.

The limits of “Evonomics”, however, are starting to be tested. With a budget deficit close to 8per cent of GDP — Latin America’s widest after Venezuela and Suriname — and rising external debtlevels as a result of lower commodity prices there are growing concerns about the Morales model. “This is not sustainable, it could blow up,” says Gonzalo Chávez, an economist at Bolivia’s Catholic University.

The government is trying to modernise the economy, investing in petrochemical and hydroelectric plants and trying to produce batteries out of rich lithium deposits. But it remains dependent on resource nationalism as it tries to continue to satisfy the demands of its key voter bases. Its two main markets for gas exports — Argentina and Brazil — are trying to boost their own output.

“The model of past success was based on factors that are not sustainable,” the IMF said in December.

As Mr Morales campaigns for a fourth term, the political cycle in the region has shifted again with anew group of leftwing leaders taking power — in Mexico last year and soon in Argentina, if the pollsare correct and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is elected vice-president later this month.

Mr García Linera acknowledges that they will all face more difficulties compared with the previous decade, simply because “there is less money now”.

“This return of the left will be more complicated, there will be worse problems, but I am not pessimistic,” he says. “If we don’t do a good job on the economy, we can’t do a good job in politics.

”However, Amaru Villanueva, a sociologist with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation in Bolivia, warns that “Evo could become a victim of his own success in social inclusion, as he has created more ambition and more expectations in the population. There is a pragmatic disenchantment, as economic wellbeing has won over identity politics.

”Indeed, in El Alto, a sprawling city of impoverished rural migrants on a high plateau above La Paz, Sonia Mamani, a seller of used clothes, acknowledges she had made more money than ever in recent years. But will not vote for Mr Morales this time.

“I have always voted for him, not this time, he’s been in power for too long,” she says. “I want new opportunities for me and my family.”

The potential problems for the economy are not the only looming danger for Mr Morales. The president also faces criticism that he has become autocratic in his behaviour.

Critics accuse him of using pliant judges to pressure the courts. They say he has used his office to create a state-run media empire that encompasses television, radio and print, and that he has persecuted members of previous rightwing governments. Corruption scandals have also sapped support for his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party.

Some of these resentments came to the fore at the weekend when several hundred thousand people protested in Santa Cruz de la Sierra over the government’s response to wildfires in the Amazon —the same issue that has prompted so much criticism of Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government in Brazil.

“Evo Morales arrived in office generating hope in almost two-thirds of the population. All of that isgone now,” says Oscar Ortíz Antelo, a senator and presidential candidate from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which is an opposition stronghold in the wealthier eastern lowlands.

His aura of invincibility started to fade in 2016 after he was defeated in a referendum called to allow him to stand for a fourth term. Undeterred, the MAS argued that term limits violated Mr Morales’s human rights, and the constitutional court overturned the decision, allowing him tostand on October 20.

Despite having won the 2016 referendum, the opposition is divided, unable to unite behind a single candidate. This is hampering its chances of beating Mr Morales outright. Moreover, to manyvoters, Mr Mesa is associated with a former president who fled to the US and is fighting extradition, while Mr Ortíz does not have a nationwide power base.

“This is damaging political blindness,” Fernando Molina, a political commentator in La Paz, says ofthe opposition.

The latest polls suggest that Mr Morales is ahead of Mr Mesa. But it is unclear whether this difference is large enough to prevent a run-off in December. Mr Morales needs at least 40 per cent of the vote, and a margin of over 10 points more than his closest contender, to win in the first round. Analysts warn the president’s strong rural support tends to be underestimated by surveys. Still, there is a possibility of a defeat in a presidential election, even the prospect of going to a second round, which is unprecedented.

Amid uncharismatic opposition leaders and an absence of other strong figures on the government side, the driving force in the election remains the towering personality of Mr Morales. A campaign slogan reads: “the best president in the history of Bolivia”.

“It was not our intention to create such a cult,” says Mr García Linera. “A person turned into an idol drifts away from the people, and Evo cannot live without them.

”Yet even in Orinoca, there is a sense that an era might be ending. On the walls of the museum, he appears as the epic culmination of a process that started centuries ago with indigenous uprisings against Spanish conquistadors.

“This museum is about the image of the president,” says the curator, Mercedes Bernabé, but sheadds that the focus on Mr Morales is now slowly being phased out.

“There was a statue of him here, but we moved it to storage.”

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