Updated 1 month ago

Protests over Morales expose divisions among Bolivians

Waving a big Bolivian flag on a wooden stick, 59-year-old Blanca Penaranda walks in front of thousands of people towards the Plaza San Francisco, the main square in the Bolivian capital, La Paz. More people join the protest from other streets, shouting: "No means no!"

Protestors took to the streets on Tuesday, exactly one year after Bolivia held a referendum on changing the constitution to enable President Evo Morales to seek a fourth re-election.

The "No" vote won by a small margin, a decision that prevents Morales from running in the 2019 elections. Later last year, however, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), the party led by Morales, announced they were considering putting him forward for candidacy again anyway. The ruling party are pursuing legal loopholes that allow Morales to run again.

"This is not a democratic government. This man wants to stay in power with his corrupt government, without shame. They can't continue to violate the constitution," says Penaranda speaking amid the throng. "We have helped Evo Morales before, because we believed he would be good. But he became crazy."

When Morales first became president in 2006, his presidency as Bolivia's first indigenous leader was widely hailed as a turning point: years of colonial rule and military dictatorships had been followed by a series of unstable governments, which often collapsed within a year of inauguration. The colonial structures had left power with wealthy landowning families and to Spanish descendants. Thus, when a member of an indigenous tribe rose to the highest seat in the country, it was seen as a great victory in a country with an indigenous population of over 60 percent.

The socialist leader was an ally of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. He nationalised the country's gas industry and expelled the US' Drug Enforcement Administration and its international development agency, USAID, from Bolivia. Morales, a former union leader for coca farmers, vowed to protect this community so that the traditional use of the coca leaf as a medicine against altitude sickness would not come under threat.

But corruption allegations began to surface, affecting Morales' government and his ministers. Particularly damaging was a story from last year, news of which broke right before the referendum: Gabriela Zapata, a former girlfriend of the president, had used her presidential contacts to obtain construction contracts for the Chinese company, CAMC, where she worked as a manager.

In the ensuing months, a scandal emerged about a child of Zapata and Morales, who the president said had died in infancy, and Zapata claimed was still alive. The socialists believed the opposition fabricated this story and paid Zapata to lie. She recently withdrew her story.

Referendum: 'People were confused'

The MAS's regional office is located in central La Paz, inside a run-down office building with broken windows and graffiti on the stairs. Juan Torrejon, the regional president, explains why they believe the government should ignore the referendum result.

"During last year's referendum, the political right - the opposition - manipulated the people," he says, referring to the story of Zapata. "Therefore, the people were confused when voting. Besides, they only won the vote with 51 percent. That's hardly a victory."

According to Torrejon, the MAS have not yet decided on how they plan to put Morales forward as a candidate. A new referendum might be an option, as might the president stepping down six months before the election. In the worst case scenario, the political party has other candidates to put forward, but Torrejon does not want to reveal those names just yet.

"We will continue with Evo," he says.

Torrejon points out how poverty in the country declined under Morales' presidency. If they win the next election, the MAS will succeed in completely eradicating poverty in the country by 2025, Torrejon says.

On the same day as the protests against a possible re-election of Morales, thousands of people take to the streets to march in support of his re-election.

They have christened the day of the referendum the "Day of the Lie".

Among them is 52-year-old Marcelino Calle who complained about the right-wing governments, which preceded the current one.

"In that time, all our money disappeared to foreign countries. Now, we can see it stays in Bolivia: there are public works, life is improving. The referendum was part of a democratic process. But the vote for 'yes' should have won," Calle says.

Divided country

"Morales' government inherited a state apparatus strife with corruption," says professor of economics Carlos Rocabado, 39, in his house in the upscale neighbourhood, Sopocachi.

"If you want to fight that corruption, as they promised, you have to fight yourself. They didn't manage to fulfil their promises. In some cases, corruption has even become worse: I know people who had to pay some 10 percent under the table for a contract, which has increased to 15 or 20 percent."

Over the past few years, the Bolivian president has lost some of his initial popularity.

Rocabado believes the socialists have had some great successes, as have other governments of the new left in Latin America, for example, Rafael Correa's government in Ecuador.

But they have not managed to fulfil all their promises. With the oil prices declining, they have invested in more projects which are damaging to the environment, contradicting their claims of protecting Pachamama - Mother Earth.

"You have to realise this country is divided between the original indigenous population and the Spanish descendant elite, who have been in power for a long time," says Bolivian writer Fernando Molina over a cup of coffee on the morning of the protests.

"With Evo Morales, the power changed hands. The main core of the people you will see protesting against his re-election are these elite who lost their power. Ex-politicians. Now, they are the ones who feel discriminated against in this country."

In front of one of the governmental buildings, Zoberto Menaza, 38, and a group of people set fire to a doll representing the president.

Menaza says he feels cheated.

"Because of our protests against neo-liberalism in 2003, Morales could get to power. Now, he does the same: he sells our country off to the Chinese."

A few hours later, the sun sets behind the hills of El Alto, a new city connected to La Paz, which has grown over 30 years from almost zero inhabitants to a population of over one million residents of mostly indigenous origin. The main square has started to fill with people and fireworks are lit.

Among the protesters is 47-year-old Antonio Ochoa, a lawyer specialising in the constitutional law.

"It's simple: the government asked if the people wanted to change the constitution, and they said they didn't want to. None of the other arguments make sense."