By Mary Anastasia O’Grady
Wall Street Journal
October 12, 2020 Anno Domini
During Evo Morales’s nearly 14 years as pres- ident, Bolivia grew into one of the Western Hemisphere’s most insidious threats to democracy. Now a year after his resignation, there is a danger that his Movement Toward Socialism party, known as MAS, could return to power—even though a majority of Bolivians don’t support it.
One legitimate worry among Latin America watchers is that if the MAS party, with Evo as its de facto boss, makes its way back into the presidential palace by way of the ballot box on Oct. 18, there won’t be another fair election in a very long time.
Mr. Morales has been secretary general of Bolivia’s federation of coca growers since 1996. He held that post throughout his tenure as Bolivia’s chief executive, and under his leadership the country became a narco state and a player in transnational crime.
Mr. Morales is a protégé of Fidel Castro. As Foreign Minister Karen Longaric told the Bolivian newspaper Pagina Siete in January, “the relation- ship with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba,” which became close Bolivian allies during the Morales presidency, “was aimed at consolidating an ideological current that had a geopolitical project.” Iran was another friend of Mr. Morales, a further reason why a MAS victory would be a setback for the region.
Mr. Morales was approaching his term limit when he organized a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to run for a fourth term. Bolivians said no. So in 2017 his hand-picked Supreme Court abolished term limits. Using that decision, he ran again last year.
Mr. Morales declared victory in that election. But evidence—including an audit by the Organization of American States—supported allegations that MAS committed fraud.
Bolivians went to the streets for three weeks to protest the government’s dirty tricks. When Mr. Morales lost the support of the army and the national police, he resigned and fled the country. Bolivia has accused him of terrorism and human-rights violations.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gave the Bolivian refuge. That raised eyebrows in Mexico because that country has been torn apart by drug-cartel violence and Mr. Morales’s federation of coca growers is one of the region’s largest producers and distributors of cocaine.
A month later the newly elected peronista government in Argentina granted Mr. Morales refugee status. As per constitutional succession, former Sen. Jeanine Áñez, of the Democrat Social Movement party, is now Bolivia’s interim president.
Mr. Morales is running the campaign of MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce from across the border. Polls have Mr. Arce leading the race but with only about 44% of total expected valid votes. (Voting is mandatory, but blank votes are subtracted from the total.) Behind him by about 10 points is former president Carlos Mesa of the Revolutionary Left Front party. Revolutionary Nationalist Movement party candidate Luis Camacho is next with 15%. Two other candidates share another 5%.
Ms. Áñez withdrew from the race last month in an effort to unify the anti-MAS vote. But since a first-round victory requires only 40% of valid votes cast with a 10-point spread over the second-place finisher, and the opposition remains split, a first-round win by Mr. Arce is a real possibility.
There are eerie parallels with Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega ruled as a dictator from 1979, when his Sandinista army overthrew Anastasio Somoza, until he was voted out in 1990. Mr. Ortega returned to power in 2006 by taking advantage of a divided opposition to win an election.
The “reformed” Mr. Ortega did not move against business but instead formed partnerships with it. A commodity boom and Venezuelan oil shipments financed with debt put the wind at his back while he consolidated power institutionally. When the money ran out and Nicaraguans decided he should go, they found themselves back in a dictatorship.
Mr. Morales pursued a similar course in Bolivia during the days of high energy and soybean prices. As Bolivian economist Mauricio Rios Garcia explained in a Nov. 13, 2019, commentary on his website, high commodity prices “allowed Morales to have a budget 4 times greater than that of the ‘neoliberal’ era of the 90s.” It was a spending increase “like never before in the history of the country,” and Mr. Morales used it to “gain powers over the economy to the detriment of economic freedom.” Mr. Morales ended central bank independence and “intervened in the banking and financial system in 2013 to grant abundant artificially cheap credit.” I might add that American and European drug consumers also sent a gusher of narco-dollars into Evo’s economy and his MAS party’s radical causes.
Bolivians were lucky to get rid of Mr. Morales when they did, and perhaps only because his consolidation of power did not sufficiently purge the military and national police. If his MAS party returns to the presidency, he won’t make the same mistake twice.