Evo Morales Returns Triumphantly to Bolivia After Exile

Evo Morales Returns Triumphantly to Bolivia After Exile

Many worry the former president could exert pressure on the new leftist government: ‘He’s reasserting himself as the strongman.’

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales returned in triumph to his home country from exile Monday, a year after he resigned amid election-rigging allegations that plunged the Andean nation into violent turmoil.

The 61-year-old was welcomed by throngs of supporters who cheered and waved the wiphala, a rainbow-colored flag representative of Bolivia’s large, politically active indigenous communities. He entered on foot, crossing a bridge from Argentina alongside his escort, Argentine President Alberto Fernandez, whose government had given Mr. Morales asylum since December.

“I was sure I was going to return. I didn’t think it would be so soon,” said Mr. Morales, who participated in an indigenous cleansing ceremony. He then set out on a three-day, 700-mile trip across the heart of Bolivia in a caravan of vehicles that will end Wednesday when he reaches the Chapare, a lowland jungle region where he began his career as an activist for farmers of coca, the raw ingredient used to make cocaine.

His return is seen as a test for the new government of President Luis Arce, a close ally of Mr. Morales who was sworn into office Sunday after his resounding victory in last month’s presidential elections. Mr. Arce, a U.K.-educated economist who had been Mr. Morales’s economy minister, had said during his campaign that Mr. Morales, who had lost popularity among many in Bolivia after 14 years in office, would play no role in his government.

Still, there was concern that Mr. Morales wouldn’t readily step aside.

“Evo is sending a message,” Jorge Derpic, University of Georgia scholar who tracks Bolivian politics, said of Mr. Morales’s return. “He’s reasserting himself as the strongman of the party.”

Mr. Morales has in weeks past pledged to return to the activism in the coca fields that propelled him to prominence, first as an internationally known opponent of the U.S. in the war on drugs and, eventually, as the country’s first indigenous president. In a speech from the border town of Villazón, he also struck a defiant tone, denying the fraud allegations that marred his bid for a fourth presidential term last year and blaming his ouster on U.S.-backed political rivals, without providing evidence.

“Brothers and sisters, we’re still making history,” Mr. Morales said. “Now, Evo has recovered democracy and retaken the homeland without violence.”

The homecoming caps a traumatic 12 months for Bolivia triggered by allegations Mr. Morales, who was accused of increasingly authoritarian rule during his 14 years in power, tried to steal last year’s elections. Amid violent street demonstrations, Mr. Morales fled the country and a transitional government led by Jeanine Áñez, a right-wing provincial politician, took over.

Her administration was accused by human rights groups of persecuting its political rivals and committing abuses in clashes between state security forces and pro-Morales demonstrators that left more than 30 people dead. Corruption scandals also weakened her short administration. A parliamentary commission controlled by Morales loyalists last month opened an investigation against her for the protester deaths. Ms. Áñez said she is innocent and said she was the victim of political persecution.

The upheaval helped Mr. Morales’ political party, the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, to comfortably win the Oct. 18 elections. The MAS also controls congress.

But today, the party is divided over the role Mr. Morales will play, said Pablo Solón, who was Mr. Morales’s ambassador to the United Nations and now runs the Solón Foundation policy group in La Paz. He believed Mr. Morales is “addicted to power.”

“Even if he’s not directly in government, through intermediaries and social organizations he is going to make sure that the government takes the route that he wants,” Mr. Solón said. “That’s for sure.” Mr. Morales has said that he won’t have any role in the Arce government and plans to concentrate on union and indigenous-rights activism.

During the campaign, some of Mr. Arce’s top aides, including Vice President David Choquehuanca, appealed for support from disenchanted MAS loyalists by promising that Mr. Morales’ inner circle wouldn’t return to power.

In their inauguration speeches in the capital of La Paz on Sunday, neither Mr. Arce nor Mr. Choquehuanca mentioned Mr. Morales. And while Mr. Arce blamed the Áñez administration for many of Bolivia’s economic problems and political polarization, Mr. Choquehuanca spoke of reconciliation with the opposition to ease tensions.

As Mr. Morales embarked on his trip Monday, Mr. Arce announced a new cabinet of 16 ministers, many of them young indigenous professionals who had forged their political paths under the Morales government. The new president underscored the difficult challenge he and his team face in tackling what he called “the pathetic situation” confronting Bolivia’s economy amid the global pandemic. He pledged to lead an administration focused on austerity.

“We’re not just talking about a reactivation, but rather a reconstruction of the economy,” Mr. Arce said.

Mr. Morales’s return was largely made possible after a judge last month dismissed charges of terrorism and sedition that had been leveled against him during the tenure of Ms. Áñez, who had accused the former president of instigating protests. Prosecutors in La Paz last week, however, said they still planned to question Mr. Morales regarding alleged instructions he gave to his supporters to blockade cities to cut off food and fuel shipments during last year’s upheaval. Still, Mr. Morales laid out a full schedule of activities. He said he would advocate against multinationals seeking to exploit Bolivia’s natural resources.

The former president, who has positioned himself as an opponent of U.S. policies in Latin America, seemed to also take delight in President Donald Trump’s loss in last week’s election. Without providing evidence, the Bolivian leader had accused Washington of leading the effort to oust him.

“The gringo who launched a coup [against us] last year, now we’re launching a coup against that gringo in the U.S.,” he said to cheers.