Evo Morales’ words as he resigned as president of Bolivia in a dramatic televised address from his coca-growing stronghold in the west of the country offered clues to his political stature and longevity as well as the daunting challenges he leaves behind.
“There has been a civilian, political and police coup . . . My sin is to be indigenous, a union leader and a coca grower,” he said on Sunday.
Mr Morales said he hoped his resignation would reduce tensions and pacify protesters enraged by his fourth victory. But little seems to have been settled since then — there have been reports of extensive looting and acts of violence.
On Monday, it remained unclear who would take power, as several officials in the line of succession — all from Mr Morales’ socialist MAS party — have resigned. It was not even clear if Mr Morales’s resignation had taken effect, given it must still be approved by two-thirds of the country’s Assembly. The Organisation of American States has issued an urgent call for the Assembly to meet “to ensure the functioning of institutions and to name new electoral authorities to guarantee a new electoral process”.
An ethnic Aymara Indian, Mr Morales empowered the country’s indigenous groups like no Bolivian leader before him. He cut poverty in half and presided over rapid economic growth, fuelled by exports from a gas industry he nationalised. These policies resonated strongly in a country where serfdom was only abolished in 1945 and indigenous people were forbidden until 1952 from entering the square outside the presidential palace.
Three convincing election victories made him a totemic figure for Latin America’s left, with an influence across the continent that belied Bolivia’s modest population and economic clout; Mr Morales dedicated his 2014 victory to the cause of anti-imperialism and to his heroes, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.
Álvaro García Linera, Mr Morales’ vice-president who resigned along with him on Sunday, was apocalyptic, saying that in a Bolivia without his boss, “there will be weeping and the sun will hide, the moon will escape, everything will be sadness”.
Mr Morales granted unprecedented recognition to the country’s indigenous groups and spent generously on social programmes. But he did little to attempt to unify the diverse nation and heal its deep racial and political divisions.
Over his third term, Mr Morales’ management of the economy also began to look increasingly unsustainable. Growth slowed despite the spending splurge, and public debt soared from 38 per cent of gross domestic product in 2014 to 53 per cent this year, according to the World Bank. Foreign exchange reserves almost halved under the strain of an artificially high fixed-exchange rate against the dollar. The budget deficit is projected to hit 8 per cent this year.
“Evo leaves the country in a very challenging situation,” said Filipe Carvalho, who follows Bolivia for Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “There is a big fiscal adjustment that needs to be done . . . there is an overvalued currency which needs to be devalued and they have burnt through a ton of reserves.”
Mr Morales’ legitimacy was first called into question when voters in 2016 rejected his attempt to run for a fourth term in power by tinkering with a constitution he had designed only years earlier. On that occasion, a constitutional court packed with loyalists ruled that term limits infringed his human rights.
By the time of the election this October, graffiti had already sprung up around La Paz and Santa Cruz, the largest cities, denouncing Mr Morales as a dictator.
Adela Colque, an indigenous woman protesting in La Paz, said Mr Morales “has been sucking on the teat of power for 14 years. I have voted for him in the past but this time was too much and he dared stealing the election? He has forgotten what he was — a man of the people”.
The OAS said at the weekend that its investigation into the vote had indicated “clear manipulation” in favour of Mr Morales and called for a fresh election. Mr Morales accepted that call but then lost the support of the rank-and-file police and military, who joined opposition protests en masse, leading the generals to ask him to step down.
His sudden departure leaves a polarised country — torn between his indigenous and unionist supporters, and the predominantly white, mixed race and middle-class opposition.
In an inflammatory farewell speech, Mr Morales accused opposition leaders Carlos Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho of “persecuting my brother union leaders”, burning the houses of his supporters and kidnapping their families. A tweet on Monday accused them of being “racists and coup-mongers”. Residents of La Paz accused Mr Morales’ followers of violence against them.
Now a country that had a period of relative stability is poised for further turmoil. Nobody knows who will win fresh elections, when they will be held or even who will run in them; Mr Morales has no clear successor and it is not clear whether he will be allowed to stand.
“As one government official told me: ‘If Evo runs and wins, we get Nicaragua. If Mesa wins, we get Argentina,” said Mr Carvalho.