On all sorts of saviors – Alma Guillermoprieto in NYRB:
‘Flying over the Andes in the dead of night, you know you’ve reached Bolivia because towns and villages become visible: neat crosshatches of light, every street illuminated. The terminal at El Alto International Airport may not have the best design or the most punctilious construction standards, but in the freezing predawn of this high plateau—the Andean altiplano—one could weep with gratitude that it is heated. Thirty years ago El Alto was not a city but a straggle of unpaved, unlit streets spreading out from a ramshackle improvisation of piled-up luggage and technology-free checkpoints. Visitors arriving to the shock of 13,000 feet above sea level gasped for air, stumbled into a taxi, and rattled their way down a pitted, hairpin road to the capital, La Paz.
El Alto today represents everything that the government of Evo Morales—known by absolutely all his countrymen as el Evo—achieved during its almost fourteen years in power, from 2006 to 2019. It is Bolivia’s second-largest city, and from the new six-lane highway into La Paz you can admire one of the most visible signs of the transformation: the crisscrossing cable cars of the capital’s spanking-new airborne transportation system, baptized Mi teleférico. There are eight lines with 1,400 gondolas serving thirty-seven stations, all built in barely eight years. Three of the lines swoop down from El Alto to La Paz, a city of 800,000 set in a treeless, arid canyon. A bus commute could eat a couple of hours of a worker’s day; a teleférico ride takes minutes.
But in important ways, El Alto itself has hardly changed since December 2005, when Alteños, along with a plurality of other Bolivians, voted overwhelmingly to elect Evo as Bolivia’s first indigenous president since independence in 1825. Sidewalk vendors still sell everything from llama fetuses to fake diamond–covered cellphone cases. Water remains scarce. Traffic remains a nightmare. The older indigenous women, or cholas, still dress in traditional layered skirts and bowler hats. They are Aymara, descended from the inhabitants of the southernmost part of the Inca empire, and although a significant percentage of El Alto’s nearly one million people are Quechua (another Andean ethnic group), mestizo, or even Chinese, this is an Aymara city in its identity, habits, and language—the only indigenous city that comes to mind in all the Americas—and it is passionately pro-Evo, a fellow Aymara.’
‘Juan Evo Morales Ayma was born in 1959 in the remote highland region of Orinoca, so poor that, as he told everyone during his first presidential campaign, he dreamed of being rich enough to ride in a bus and throw sucked orange halves carelessly out the window, as he saw passengers do when he walked into town with his father. When he was nineteen, fresh out of military service and ambitious, he and his family realized there was no future in the arid altiplano. They joined a growing stream of highlanders moving down to the steaming, fertile lowland strip of territory called the Chapare to farm coca leaf, which was being bought for stacks of money by flashy foreigners in a hurry. A traditional and legal Andean crop with religious associations, coca is chewed by Bolivian campesinos—poor farmers—as a mild stimulant and was used as an ingredient in Coca-Cola until well into the 1990s. But a ton of leaves can also be refined into about two pounds of cocaine base paste. In the 1980s, at the height of the United States’ reckless affair with coke, farmers in the Chapare were able to earn as much as $14,000 a year, for them a staggering amount.
It was then that Evo joined a growing union movement among the coca farmers as sports secretary (he is a soccer fanatic), eventually becoming the combative head of the federation of the six coca-growing unions in the Chapare. Like many of his union brothers, he saw himself first as a campesino, not an Aymara, but always as a union militant. Those were tough times: Washington fantasized that it could eliminate the cocaine trade—run mostly by Colombian smugglers and US distributors—by persuading a succession of hard-line, right-wing rulers to fight a proxy war against coca growers. US-trained Bolivian special forces were helicoptered into the Chapare, men were killed, women were abused, farmers’ houses were burned down, and Evo emerged from those years of confrontation with a vaguely Marxist, fiercely anti-US view of the world.’
‘The new constitution, enacted in 2009, declared clean drinking water and sewage systems a universal right, granted indigenous communities a wide range of authority in their territories, and guaranteed a minimum number of congressional seats for native representatives. Thanks to high international prices for the country’s main export, natural gas—averaging $8 per thousand cubic feet—the economy purred along at nearly 5 percent yearly growth, and the government had room to experiment and innovate during its first ten years in power. (“I governed with gas at $1.70,” Evo’s predecessor Carlos Mesa says bitterly and often.) For a few months, at least, the minister of justice was a Quechua domestic worker who had come up through the ranks of the MAS organizing other women like her. In Bolivia, where the brutal oppression of conquest was still felt by the indigenous peoples, their newfound visibility and the constitutional reforms brought a great healing shift in racial relations. This was fiercely resisted by fearful whites and mestizos, and yet, keeping in mind that Bolivia once had five presidents in a single year, businessmen were grateful for the new stability.
It was enough to make the flaws and brutalities of Evo’s rule seem almost irrelevant, almost tolerable. There was, for example, the persecution of journalists and the media. The Evo government bought up newspapers and television stations and forced out critical journalists. For all its proclaimed indigenous identity, it clashed repeatedly with native groups, particularly in the tropical lowlands, where the decision to allow Shell Oil and Brazil’s Petrobras into a forest reserve led to months of confrontation with the inhabitants.’
‘On November 9 rebellious crowds reduced Evo to governing, or attempting to, from the presidential airport hangar at El Alto. That afternoon General Williams Kaliman, head of the armed forces and a crucial Evo ally, announced that the army would “never confront the people we owe ourselves to,” effectively cutting his ties to the president. At 3:00 AM on November 10, the Organization of American States’ electoral monitors released a long-awaited report listing the election’s irregularities, including the use of “hidden” servers that could be used to hack the vote-counting system.
That morning, the government asked the opposition if the head of the Senate, the MAS member Adriana Salvatierra, who was next in the line of succession, would be an acceptable replacement if Evo resigned. After Salvatierra was rejected, it wasn’t clear who could replace him. (Everyone understood that Vice President García Linera would go wherever his boss did.) Evo offered to call new elections, but it was too late. Around noon the largest union confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana, broke ranks with the government and asked the president to resign.
At 3:45 PM, General Kaliman “suggested” that Evo step down, but by then he was already boarding a plane to his home base in the Chapare, in the company of García Linera. Once there, a haggard Evo announced that he was resigning in the name of peace. A “civic, political, and police coup” was responsible for his defeat, he said. Curiously, he did not include the armed forces among the golpistas. Two days later a Mexican Air Force plane sent by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador flew him into exile.
Whether the events leading to Evo’s flight to Mexico constituted a coup is a subject of some debate, but generally coups are designed not only to remove rulers but also to replace them. That was not the case this time. As night fell on November 10, Bolivians looked around their unruly, leaderless country and wondered what could possibly happen next.’
‘Devastating numbers of Covid-19 cases forced the election to be postponed twice. After months of mismanagement, Áñez withdrew from the race in September. The MAS nominated Luis Arce Catacora, Evo’s longtime minister of the economy.
An unlikely candidate, Arce nevertheless won the election, in a comeback triumph for his party and for Evo. Seen from a certain perspective, one could credit Arce with many of the great achievements of the Evo era. He put an end to the recurrent cycles of hyperinflation that had often made daily life in the country a surrealist challenge. In contrast to Evo, with his strong indigenous features and elegant alpaca jackets trimmed with pre-Hispanic motifs, Arce has an unmemorable appearance and private life—married, three kids, no scandals. Always discreetly in the background, he engineered the economy that financed Bolivia’s transformation. Per capita income tripled and a new indigenous middle class was born. The number of Bolivians in extreme poverty shrank from 38 to 16 percent of the population. Roads were built in an all but roadless country. Arce owes the bounty that enabled these changes to the steep rise in the price of natural gas, of course, but he could have chosen to spend it differently. There will be no such good times for President Arce: the collapse of fuel prices and the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Bolivia with devastating force, have seen to that.’
‘Among those issues is Noemí Meneses, his pleasant, cheerful young companion in exile. She sends him passionate tweets and Evo appears to remain besotted with her, despite the fact that she is now all of nineteen and not a nubile fourteen, as she was when, according to all the evidence, they started their relationship. There are selfies and pictures of Evo and Noemí’s interlaced feet in matching socks, his calves big and hairy, hers half the size.
Evo’s affair with Noemí was no secret—Meneses has shown up in photographs and videos at rallies, ever ready with a towel to wipe her hero’s face after he finishes a soccer game, at the side of cabinet members, or on official visits to the Falkland Islands or Santa Cruz. But the short-lived Añez administration gleefully fastened on to the relationship, because it is evident and indefensible. Meneses has charged in a written statement that she and her sisters were kidnapped by the police in July, held for twenty-four hours and threatened, and forced to state that the photos the officers had obtained were of her and Evo. (The confession and dozens of her selfies were subsequently leaked to the press.)
Most legal charges filed by the opposition against Evo—for terrorism, illegal enrichment, and pedophilia (that would be Meneses)—are being dropped. Consequently, he has announced his return to Bolivia on November 9, one day after Arce’s swearing-in. He will, he told reporters, repair to his old base, the Chapare, but only after a brief triumphal tour of three provinces, according to the latest announcement. Once home, he will devote himself to union activities and to breeding a species of tropical fish. It is hard to imagine that this new life will keep him happy for long.
For the moment, what is left of Evo’s rule is the party he built. It is impossible to overstate how tough the MAS militants are. They know how to bring down governments. Arce may be in charge of the country, but within his rambunctious party he represents a minority. He will have to take on the evangelicals, the right-wing separatists, white rabblerousers of wealthy Santa Cruz province, and Mesa’s middle-class and educated elite; reconcile with the military and police; and, perhaps most difficult of all, unify the party under his command. He has some tough years ahead, but he won his election with five points more than Evo won his a year ago. Perhaps this time around, that 5 percent who didn’t vote for Evo in 2019 were expressing their admiration for Arce’s many virtues as minister of the economy. Or maybe it was just that, after all the turmoil and bloodshed, and after fourteen years of militant Evo, bland and boring looks pretty good.’
Read the article here.
What’s politics without a sex scandal, and what’s a sex scandal without a minor?
Having said this, it’s pretty amazing that the last elections in Bolivia were free and fair and above all without any significant amount of violence.
Perhaps Noemí will keep Morales happy for a while.
Morales did return to Bolivia, according to NPR, Morales ‘ made a triumphant return to his home country.’
NPR writes also:
‘President Arce has sought to distance himself from his former boss, and has indicated that Morales will have no role in his government for now. However, Morales' high profile return is stoking speculation that the charismatic former president is making a come-back in more ways than one.’
Read it here.
And despite all the changes, especially during of the first years of Morales, ‘El Alto itself has hardly changed since December 2005,' as Alma Guillermoprieto pointed out.
It’s probably fair to say that Bolivia itself has hardly changed since December 2005.