For Bolivia’s Evo Morales, elections have been moments of triumph. Since he emerged from the rural labor movement to win the presidency in late 2005, the fiery political maverick has won three straight contests to become his nation’s longest serving president.
So it came as a blow last week when Bolivians narrowly rejected a proposal to change their constitution to allow Morales to run for a fourth term and potentially stay in office until 2025. It seems that even one of Latin America’s most celebrated autocrats has fallen prey to his own appetite for power and the perils of mortgaging a nation to China’s expanding global ambitions.
Although Bolivia is small and poor, Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, has played an emblematic role in the now fading “pink tide” of Latin American countries governed by leftists. Yes, the charismatic populist could intimidate opponents and rail at imperialists with the rest of the Bolivarian bullies, but he marshaled his raw-materials bonanza more sensibly than spendthrift counterparts such as Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner or the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
Such a record helped cast Morales as a “good autocrat,” in the words of journalist Andres Oppenheimer, and that myth, along with generous social spending, played well on the Bolivian stump. “There is just one Fidel, one Mandela, one Gandhi… and one Evo,” his foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, recently told El País.
But apparently voters have now decided that Morales is dispensable, and it’s hard not to imagine how a succession of scandals — from alleged embezzlement at a government-financed indigenous development fund to a suspicious arson attack on a rival mayor’s offices that left six dead — helped set the stage for his defeat. …