The road to ruin: How a political rift threatens Bolivia's stability

This past week, Evo Morales's supporters paralyzed the country

bolivia-president-acre Bolivian President Luis Arce, center, and his Vice President David Choquehuanca, left, wave to supporters from a presidential palace balcony | AP

High in the Andes mountains, the air is thin. Opportunities are scarce. Held together by strong regional societal links, the country’s functionality is nevertheless collapsing, with various groups in a string of strikes and road blockades to make themselves heard. 

This past week it was supporters of former President Evo Morales that paralyzed the country, dynamiting hillsides to block roads connecting its cities and borders and doing this to force reinstatement of his eligibility to run for the presidency. The general strike and blockades are indefinite. Thousands of people are stranded. Morales’ dynamite-wielding, rock-throwing mobilized supporters are reportedly two million strong.

The Bolivian people are a collective of indigenous peasantries, those of mixed Spanish and European descent, a working-class, an urban small merchant bourgeoisie, and monied elites. For centuries, indigenous Bolivians have eked out a harsh living working small plots of land. Coca leaf, a mild stimulant chewed or brewed into tea, offered one of the few viable cash crops. But it also brought a lucrative, illicit trade —cocaine production— that has long plagued the country. 

In 2005, Morales, an Aymara India rode discontent with foreign-backed coca eradication programs into the presidency. For more than a decade he made a name for himself as the unyielding and insurgent leader of the coca-growers union. His defiant, leftist rhetoric electrified Bolivia's long-marginalized indigenous majority. Morales spoke of nationalizing industries, empowering labourers, and forcibly redistributing land held by wealthy elites. 

For some, he became a champion of the oppressed. For others, a dangerous demagogue threatening free markets and private property. 

The socialist policies he implemented are credited by supporters with fueling economic growth and lifting many Bolivians out of poverty. His Movement for Socialism (MAS by its Spanish initials) party has dominated elections for two decades, giving him a 14-year-run as president. 

When he tried to get around the term limits of the new constitution he gave Bolivia and run for an unprecedented fourth term in office, people revolted.

Despite results that showed him winning the elections, people just refused to accept it, blocking streets and for weeks in a movement that gained revolutionary momentum. Police and military garrisons mutinied against the central powers in a choreography the country has seen play out before in decades of revolutions and coups d’etat. 

Morales too had seen this before and with revolutionary forces closing in on his refuge in the Chapare central coca-growing area of Bolivia, he resigned to the presidency and left the country in a plane sent by leftist Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador. An interim president took over the country and Evo left for presumptive exile in Mexico. 

That, however, did not last. Before long he was heading to Havana and when his friend the leftist Alberto Fernandez won the presidency in Argentina, Evo moved to the Argentina that had seen him grow up. There, he stirred the sizeable Bolivian community and directed his party in the elections that were scheduled to replace the interim president, a right-wing waning politician who was propelled to power by happenstance and tried to do more than her mandate by steering the country to the right.

It was Evo who selected the candidate, his former economy minister Luis Arce, the man credited with what was dubbed the Bolivian Economic Miracle, a period of unprecedented economic stability and growth, that had Bolivia topping charts across Latin America and reducing poverty. Arce won the presidency in a landslide and when he took office Evo ended his exile in a triumphant cross of the border into Bolivia accompanied by Fernandez.

Now, however, a bitter feud between Morales and his hand-picked president threatens to fracture the party and plunge Bolivia into instability. In December, the country’s subservient Supreme Court justices extended their own tenures and barred Morales from seeking the presidency anew.  That marked a full schism.

The political divorce has already brought angry protesters into the streets anew, blocking highways and choking the economy, calling for the ousting of the justices, and the reinstatement of Morales’s eligibility.

In La Paz, Julieta Albarez has worked hard for years so her two daughters could attend college in Brazil and escape Bolivia’s cycle of political instability, corruption, and stymied futures. However, now with roads dangerously blocked with rocks, burning tires, and dynamited mountainsides, even leaving Bolivia is difficult. With the increased demand, air transport costs have increased very quickly, making travel prohibitively expensive for most Bolivians.

For Albarez’s daughters, their trip stalled on the road in the pampas between La Paz and the colonial city of Potosi, college and a new future in a new country will have to wait.

They are just three of the millions of Bolivians in the grip of one more spate of strikes and roadblocks. With no reconciliation in sight, the nation's future hangs in the balance.

How did it get that way?

Initially, Morales and Arce seemed to have a symbiotic relationship. Arce provided competent economic management and maintained party loyalty among the Quechua and Aymara indigenous groups. Morales lent his charisma to mobilize the base of the MAS party he founded. 

Together they used this unity to attack opponents and settle old scores like jailing those who led the revolt against Morales’s fourth term. Former president Jeanine Añez is serving a long prison term and Eastern leader Luis Fernando Camacho is in a high security prison in an ever-extending preventative detention. `  

But fissures rapidly developed. Arce, a U.K.-trained technocrat, sought to distance himself from Morales' radicalism to reassure skittish business leaders. Morales blasted the government for wavering on his agenda. What he perceives as a return to neoliberalism is not what Morales had in mind.

Their friction went public in 2022. Morales accused Arce of corruption and links to drug trafficking, demanding the resignation of his Interior Minister. 

Arce refused to fire his ally. 

Morales then released phone recordings of the national anti-drug chief discussing apparent payments to Arce's campaign.

Yet the allegations failed to spur major defections from Arce, who denied them categorically. Instead, Arce moved to shore up his own power base within the MAS party, driving out Morales's loyalists in parliament and severing ties with his party lieutenants. 

In late 2022, Arce resigned from MAS before an internal party election overwhelmingly chose Morales as their 2025 presidential candidate. Arce's supporters were also expelled from the party after he refused to attend the assembly. 

Then last December, Bolivia's Constitutional Tribunal complicated Morales' ambitions further by ruling no president can serve more than two terms, consecutive or otherwise. Since Morales already held the presidency for nearly 14 years, he is barred from running again.  

Morales denounced the decision as a "coup" orchestrated by Arce's government and protested it violated the constitutional rights of not just himself but Bolivia's indigenous citizens. His supporters took to the streets but were met with tear gas from security forces. Dynamite blasts became an insistent soundtrack in the country’s major cities of La Paz, Oruro, Cochabamba, Potosi, and Santa Cruz.

Escalating Crisis

This past week, the feud escalated dangerously as legions of coca growers blocked highways across Bolivia in protest of the term limits ruling. Initially, blockade points were concentrated around Cochabamba, a MAS party stronghold where Morales got his start in politics. 

Soon, though, roads in and out of the capital, La Paz, and the country’s economic engine Santa Cruz were also largely inaccessible. Then hard hat-wearing miners blocked the roads along the southern routes around Oruro and Potosi, blasting dynamite that frightened those stuck on the roads.

Protest leaders demanded the resignation of current judges on the Constitutional Tribunal along with fresh elections. They accused Arce of political persecution by leveraging Bolivia's justice system to bar Morales from returning to power. Suddenly, Evo Morales felt the use of the court systems that has neutered the party’s opposition.

Arce's government has dismissed the blockades as an illegitimate effort by Morales to make the country "ungovernable" in order to impose himself as MAS' candidate. His administration claims the actions of a few radicals do not represent broader indigenous sentiment.

But the economic impacts of disruption are deepening by the day. Road freight transport has been paralyzed nationwide, strangling supplies of food, fuel and goods. Neighboring countries including Argentina, Peru, Chile and Brazil are also feeling spillover effects. 

Police have dispersed some blockades with tear gas, stoking accusations of unjust state violence. As the indefinite strikes continue, the severance of key transport arteries has taken an increasingly dangerous toll. Two deaths have now been reported, including a woman unable to reach medical care in time. 

Facing millions of dollars in daily losses and mounting hardship, the Arce government has pinned sole responsibility on Morales, decrying his thirst for power. But Morales remains defiant, vowing to fight for the marginalized and accusing the regime of abusing judicial and security powers for political ends.


With neither side backing down, negotiations seem unlikely. The blockades continue to take their toll, and patience among weary citizens is wearing thin. On the heels of 2023, with 211 days of roadblocks around the country, the standoff ends remains deeply uncertain.


Possible Scenarios

If the protests can be resolved peacefully through dialogue, Bolivia may return to an uneasy status quo. Arce will likely continue efforts to consolidate his control and edge Morales aside, aided by his allies firmly entrenched in key positions. 

Morales has support strong enough to remain a force within the powerful coca growers' unions and the party he founded. But his direct influence could wane without being in elected office. The current situation is an effort to evade fading into just one more opposition figure on the political fringe rather than a president-in-waiting.

Of course, Morales did not rise to power by meekly accepting others' political manoeuvres to check his ambition. If he can stir his base to still want him in office, he may continue using levers like the coca unions to pressure the Arce regime through strikes and unrest. The blockades could stretch on and expand.  

That risks even more severe economic disruption, violence, and fatalities if protests are met with increased state crackdowns. 

Political polarization and regional divisions would deepen, recalling the turbulence that led to Morales' resignation. 

The potential is there for a more dangerous destabilization, an open insurrection led by Morales or even military intervention to "restore order," all things that have happened numerous times in Bolivia’s past.

Alternatively, Morales could conclude prolonging unrest is too risky and unpopular. Indigenous groups may resent being dragged into a political grudge match between rival leaders when they already wrest a hard living from the land. Morales would maintain his persona as a champion for their rights. But with a pragmatic eye toward self-preservation, he could shift to a long game rebuilding MAS loyalty over years before making another presidential run.

The party, however, is splintering into various factions – communists, socialists, labor unionists, indigenous activists, cocalero movements, and intellectuals both in the left and center.

Of course, that leaves open whether Arce can effectively consolidate control to steer Bolivia on a stable course without Morales hovering disruptively over his shoulder. The president must also deliver economic results and opportunity for the majority mestizo and indigenous populace who saw real gains under Morales. An inept or repressive regime could spawn the return of the same social foment that bred Morales' rise initially.

The role ahead for Morales may prove the most intriguing drama yet. Will he accept a diminished part with grace? Or will the quest to regain the starring role drive him to measures that could bring down the country itself? 

For the people sharing confined borders uneasily between regional powers in the heights of the Andes, the latest act in their national epic could dictate much more than political score-settling. At stake may be whether Bolivia can escape burying itself beneath economic disasters of its own making.

The Evo Morales backstory

He was born in 1959 in Orinoco, a small village in western Bolivia's Oruro department into a family of the Aymara indigenous people who were conquered by the Inca empire five centuries earlier. As a child, he often accompanied his father when he ventured down from the Altiplano plateau to grow coca and other crops in the subtropical Yungas valleys, a gigantic verdant staircase northeast of La Paz that descents from the Andes to the Amazon basin. 

The coca plant has been cultivated in the Andes for millennia. Its leaves contain alkaloids like cocaine, but when chewed or brewed in tea they provide only a mild stimulant effect coca acts as an appetite suppressant and helps counter altitude sickness; in the streets on the Andes, coca-chewing is widely seen among indigenous Bolivians.  For them, the plant has deep cultural and religious significance. But coca also became the raw material for processing cocaine.

By the 1980s, Bolivia was the world's top supplier of the addictive white powder. In an effort to curb the illicit drug trade, the U.S. government pushed aggressive coca eradication programs, paying Bolivian security forces to uproot plants. Morales argued this criminalized indigenous growers while ignoring the root causes of cocaine production like poverty. 

In 1985, Morales was elected head of his local coca growers' union in the Chapare region of Central Cochabamba department. He helped organize protests and blockades to resist coca eradication. His defiant activism against the U.S.-backed drug war earned Morales the nickname "El Cocalero." It also thrust him onto the national political stage as an advocate for indigenous rights and farmer livelihoods.

In 1997, Morales was elected to Bolivia's Chamber of Deputies, becoming the legislature's first indigenous member. Two years later, he co-founded the leftist Movement for Socialism party to further indigenous political participation. In 2002, Morales narrowly lost Bolivia's presidential election to former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

The next year, Bolivia erupted in turmoil as legions of indigenous protesters demanded the nationalization of natural gas reserves being developed with foreign investment. When the military killed dozens of demonstrators, the public turned against Lozada, who resigned and fled the country.

His successor, Carlos Mesa, also struggled with continual protests led in part by Morales. With his political star rising, Morales leaned into anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric, vowing to empower Bolivia's marginalized underclass through state intervention in the economy.

In December 2005, Morales won the presidency in a landslide, becoming the first indigenous head of state in South America. "The time has come, to change Bolivia forever," he declared.

Radical Reforms 

Morales moved swiftly to implement his promised reforms. He nationalized oil and gas reserves along with other strategic industries like mining, telecommunications and railways. 

Government revenues from nationalized hydrocarbon operations were directed toward health, education, and infrastructure programs to benefit the poor putting Bolivia in period of growth and development unparalleled in its modern history.

A new constitution enacted in 2009 established Bolivia as a "plurinational" state recognizing 37 indigenous languages and cultures. Morales also initiated a sweeping land reform programme to redistribute territory from large landowners to indigenous groups and small farmers. Millions of hectares were turned over, albeit often without compensation to former owners. 

Morales' policies found support among Bolivia's indigenous, who comprise over 60% of the population. They also proved popular among leftist leaders in the region like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who supplied subsidized oil to Morales' government. 

But business elites and foreign investors bristled at his state-centric economic model. Conservative opposition groups concentrated in Santa Cruz and other eastern provinces where gas reserves lie accused Morales of illegally consolidating power. Morales’s international rhetoric and close ties to Cuba and Venezuela have stoked fears of the country following Venezuela’s path. His supporters demanded he deliver on promises of radical reform.

Economically, Morales' policies coincided with a commodities boom that allowed revenues from gas and minerals to bankroll social programmes, fueling average GDP growth of nearly 5% from 2006-2014. Poverty fell and economic activity rose in rural areas. Morales points to these gains as vindication for his policies. Critics note the gains mirrored regional trends, while official figures obscure ongoing deep inequality. 

Following a landslide reelection victory, Morales held a 2016 referendum to amend term limits so he could run again after nearly 10 years as president. Voters narrowly rejected the changes. Undeterred, Morales appealed to the Constitutional Tribunal stacked with his appointees. They overruled the referendum, clearing the way for him to run in 2019. 

By now, even some indigenous supporters had grown wary of his tightening grip on power. But Morales claimed a first-round victory anyway in an election marred by allegations of manipulation of the vote-counting. Protests broke out, leading to his dramatic resignation and exile amid fears of violent state repression. 

Yet within a year, Morales returned home after his MAS party regained power in new elections under Arce, Morales' former finance minister and architect of his economic program.

Now, he seeks a return to power and his ambition is paralyzing the country. Bolivia has chewed up many political ambitions before; but this time, the tension surrounding his political manoeuvres has heightened divisions and raised concerns about the country's stability.

For a nation that runs on political drama as high as the altitude, much depends on how long the starring protagonists hold the stage. Morales defined an era in Bolivia by riding indigenous unrest from the coca fields to the halls of power. His commanding presence remade the nation's identity and trajectory. Yet even massive figures risk becoming more set piece than central player as the spotlight shifts inevitably to new acts.

Like him or hate him, it is undeniable that Evo Morales has already been the country’s most transformational figure, but fears are real that he is now driving the country on the road to ruin.


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