The politics of forever in Bolivia come to an end—at least for now

In January 2009, just before the national vote on the country’s radical new constitution, Evo Morales was in the full flush of revolutionary fervor. Addressing a gathering of Movement to Socialism (MAS) members at the seventh annual all-party congress in the wind-swept altiplano city of Oruro, Morales laid bare—in typically prosaic terms—his political vision.

“We are not just passing through the palace, we are not just visiting it. We have arrived to stay . . . I want to say to you all that we have taken back the palace. We are not just tenants, we have recovered what is rightly ours, brothers and sisters. That will be forever.”

I thought of this politics of forever as I studied the image of Morales aboard a plane for Mexico, looking uncharacteristically gaunt, a Mexican flag draped pathetically over his lap. The traumatic impact this photo will have among the millions of his supporters in Bolivia, many of whom live in rural areas without access to daily media, is not difficult to imagine.

As someone who spent nearly 10 years conducting ethnographic research in Bolivia across the entire sweep of the Morales era, it was always clear to me that the ultimate meaning of Morales’s rise to power could never be reduced to either clear benchmarks of democratic legitimacy or unambiguous socioeconomic indicators, like the dramatic increase in life expectancy during the Morales years, or the precipitous drop in rates of illiteracy, or the extent to which a real social safety net was created for the first time.

Instead, the significance of the “process of change,” as it is described locally in Bolivia, had to be understood both symbolically and historically. Symbolically, the election and re-elections of Morales represented a stunning transformation for the country’s different indigenous populations, who collectively constitute a majority. As a taxi driver told me just after the constitution was ratified by a landslide, with tears in his eyes, “we support brother Evo, of course, we love him, we have the same face.”

Or as Sacha Llorenti, a former close advisor to Morales, reflected on one of the thousands of visits the president made to isolated rural villages throughout the country: “I traveled with Evo to Coro Coro . . . last year and there are always large groups of children who rush to meet him. The children started to give him presents . . . when one of the children gave him a portrait of the president that he had drawn . . . This was an Aymara child of around eight or nine years old, and Evo asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy responded, ‘I want to be president of Bolivia.’ That struck me immediately . . . Evo has changed the world for them. Everything is possible.”

And historically, Bolivia’s “refoundation” (as the 2009 constitution puts it) as a “plurinational state” must be viewed against 500 years of colonial, republican, and then neoliberal economic plunder, during which the nation—in its various guises—became a global metaphor for rapacious exploitation. It was not for nothing that the Uruguayan intellectual Eduardo Galeano put Bolivia at the center of Open Veins of Latin America, his definitive study of “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.” The election of Morales and the implementation of MAS’s social and economic policies, which included the creation of a vice-ministry specifically for “decolonization,” were meant to signal a permanent break with this centuries-long legacy of imposed immiseration.

This irreversible rupture was often described by MAS officials and indigenous supporters of the government as a “Pachakuti,” a Quechua word meaning “world renewal” that has become a quasi-religious principle for many from Bolivia’s dominant highland indigenous groups.

Which brings me back to the sight of the supposed living embodiment of this Pachakuti, Morales himself, fleeing the country in the wake of urban street violence, the reemergence of the far-right in the figure of Luis Fernando Camacho, leader of Santa Cruz’s Civic Committee, and, most worryingly of all, the threat of a military usurpation of national political power.

Whether this is described as a coup d’état or not, it immediately evokes a long and doleful history of military take-overs, dictatorships, and persecutions, including that of General Luis García Meza, who came to power in the Cocaine Coup of 1980 and oversaw a one-year reign of terror during which his circle of advisors included the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon.

Yet despite the chaos of recent days and the return to a level of national political instability not seen since the years before the 2005 elections brought Morales to power, the deeper meaning and importance of the process of change will likely endure, even, ideally, in ways that become detached from Morales himself.

Nevertheless, even as he fled the country, he drew from indigenous concepts to explain what the nation might expect of him in the days and weeks to come. In vowing to return “with force,” Morales paid homage to the defeated late-eighteenth century Indian rebel Túpac Katari, who, just before being drawn-and-quartered by Spanish colonial troops, supposedly uttered, as his final words, “I will return and I will be millions.”