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How Evo Morales Made Bolivia A Better Place ... Before He Fled The Country

President Evo Morales at the inauguration of new buildings in a housing project in 2016. The Indigenous Aymara artist Roberto Mamani Mamani painted murals over a building facade.
Marcelo Perez Del Carpio
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
President Evo Morales at the inauguration of new buildings in a housing project in 2016. The Indigenous Aymara artist Roberto Mamani Mamani painted murals over a building facade.

Evo Morales stepped down from the Bolivian presidency on Nov. 10, after the military asked him to do so, and fled to Mexico for asylum.

His departure followed nationwide controversy over his reelection in October. Morales had called for a court appeal to allow him to run beyond the constitutionally mandated term limit. And then the election itself was marred by polling irregularities and fraud.

Unrest has ensued. Security forces fired on protesters who support Morales on Nov. 15; eight were killed and many others injured. More than 30 people have been killed since the Oct. 20 vote.

But despite the turmoil, there is another perspective on the nearly 14 years Morales held office.

As the country's first Indigenous president, Morales promised to bring power to marginalized groups. And he fulfilled that promise.

"There's no question that there was a successful impact on raising the standard of living of the poor, and in Bolivia that means the Indigenous community," says Mark Schneider of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Americas Program, which conducts research and analysis on Latin American policy and development.

Indeed, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have recognized the social and economic leaps Bolivia made under Morales' leadership. The country's GDP grew an average of 4.8% a year from 2004 to 2017, while the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty was more than halved from approximately 36% down to 17% during that time.

In 2010, the World Bank changed Bolivia's classification from "lower-income" to "lower-middle income" after the country surpassed the $1,100 national income per person threshold for middle-income status.

So how did Morales transform one of South America's poorest countries? According to Antonio Bojanic, a Bolivian economist who teaches at Tulane University, the answer is simple: economic policies that promoted steady growth — and government investment in social spending.

After being sworn into office in 2006, the leader nationalized Bolivia's oil and gas industries with the goal of renegotiating contracts with foreign energy companies and transferring the power and revenue from natural resources into the hands of the Bolivian government. He controversially redistributed 134 million acres of land from state or private ownership to Indigenous families, some of whose relatives had been forced to work as sharecroppers or slaves, according to a previous NPR story.

Above all, says Bojanic, the commodities boom of the 2000s — in which the prices for gas and other Bolivian exports shot up — pumped new revenue into the economy. Morales redirected that money into schools, hospitals and infrastructure. Starting in 2006, for example, approximately 4,500 educational facilities were built with funds from the nationalized hydrocarbon industry and commodities boom.

Morales also used additional resources to increase personal household incomes, raising the minimum wage several times throughout his presidency. In 2006, he established a cash transfer program called Bono Juancito Pinto: $200 bolivianos a year — around $28 — that is given directly to young children to enroll in primary education and stay in school. This year, 2.2 million students are expected to receive the grant.

Morales' mission of boosting income expanded to senior citizens and pregnant women, too. In 2009, he implemented a universal monthly pension program called Renta Dignidad for people 60 years or older. The result has been an annual income of about $2,400 bolivianos — $342.

That same year, he established the Bono Juana Azurduy, which provides cash bonuses as an incentive for women to regularly visit health care facilities during pregnancy and the first two years after childbirth.

But as in many other cases where a politician comes to power with great promise, Morales laid the groundwork for his own undoing.

Manuela Picq, who teaches political science at Amherst College and international relations at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, sees similarities between Morales' story and the disgraced presidency of Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

Like Morales, says Picq, Correa establishedsafety nets for lower-income families, invested in education and raised the minimum wage. As oil prices soared, Ecuador's economy grew. Correa also declared solidarity with Indigenous groups and granted Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, fundamental rights in the 2008 Constitution.

But other interests got in the way of the promise to help marginalized populations. Little by little, Picq says, both Correa and Morales went back on commitments to safeguard the environment, giving priority to economic growth over the well-being of protected lands and the people who live there.

In 2013, Correa approved oil drilling in the previously untouched Yasuni National Park in the Amazon, home to the Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples. In a similar vein, in 2017 Morales approved construction of a controversial highway through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park in the name of expanded infrastructure.

His critics say the road serves Brazilian business interests for transporting goods more than those of the Bolivian people. Bojanic also says this highway will benefit the country's coca growers more than any Indigenous groups.

To increase Bolivia's food supply exports, Morales also encouraged slash-and-burn practices in forested areas as a means to clearing land for more cattle ranching and farming. But a spike in slashing and burning was linked to the fires that blazed throughout the Chiquitania region earlier this year, leading Bolivian critics to blame Morales for the devastation in the homeland of the Chiquitano people. The fires caught the attention of international environmental and political leaders.

"The cost for the ecosystem is huge," says Picq, "and the cost for Indigenous people is enormous."

According to World Wildlife Fund Bolivia, the Indigenous community of Monte Verde lost more than 250,000 acres of forests in the fire.

These incidents, Picq explains, are examples of how Morales, like other leaders in the region, began to lose the trust of the people who elected him.

But the biggest issue across the board that led to the downfall of Morales, Picq, Schneider and Bojanic all agree, is the tendency of Latin American populist leaders to attempt to remain in office at all costs and repress their critics.

In 2015, Picq was jailed during a protest against Ecuador's lifting of term limits for elected officials and had her visa revoked overnight. She likens this to Morales' maneuvering the legal system to run for a fourth term even after 51% of voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed him to do so.

"There are the same decrees that impede the emergence of alternative politics, of alternative parties and of social movements," Picq says.

Schneider shares her views. "The problems in Bolivia arose, unfortunately, from the same problems that you see in Nicaragua and Venezuela, in Honduras and elsewhere where individuals decide that it's more important to stay in power than to follow democratic norms and the rule of law," he explains. "The result is almost inevitably a turn toward authoritarian practices, and unfortunately, also usually [a] turn toward corruption."

Even without Morales in office, Bojanic says he believes internal and external debt is as at sustainable enough levels that the economy will continue growing, and public infrastructure projects will not be halted.

The problem all along, he says, is that Morales grew to see himself as "indispensable" and undermined the rule of law to seek reelection. He points to how Morales stacked all branches of government with members of his political party, the Movement for Socialism, to allow him to run for another term.

"It is likely that he's going to be remembered as not the person who brought prosperity and greater equality to the Bolivian population but rather as the person who has pushed the country to basically the edge of a precipice," Bojanic says of the current social and political unrest.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.
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