MEXICO CITY — When Evo Morales came to power in Bolivia in 2006, he jetted around the world, meeting leaders everywhere from South Africa to China, wearing the same striped sweater. Copies of it flew off the shelves. Morales became an unlikely style icon and, more importantly, an inspiration to many who followed his rise from poverty as the son of a llama herder to one of the most influential leaders in Latin America.
Fast-forward 13 years, and Morales found himself sneaking out of Bolivia in the dead of night, pleading with other leaders to allow the borrowed plane he was fleeing in to use their airspace. A giant of the left, who only last month seemed set for a controversial fourth term as president, Morales’ fall from grace has been swift, and the wreckage widespread, with violent protests breaking out across the country.
And, as so often with the big names of Latin America — where the word "coup" is supercharged, evoking memories of the regular overthrows of governments beginning in the 1930s and well into the ’70s, particularly of left-wing leaders — how you see what has happened to him is often dependent on your own political ideology. On the left, he’s seen as the victim of a putsch; on the right, his downfall is taken as evidence of democracy trumping authoritarianism on the continent. From Sen. Bernie Sanders referring to Morales’ ouster as a “coup” to the White House praising his resignation as a step forward for democracy in the region, opinions about his escape from Bolivia often have little to do with the facts on the ground, where neither he nor his opposition are the one-dimensional heroes or villains they are regularly portrayed as abroad.
Morales’ arrival in Mexico on Tuesday came after he announced his resignation following a controversial election last month that was mired in “irregularities,” including an unexplained hiatus in the vote count that saw Morales emerge as the clear victor.
Morales’ problems date back to 2016, when he lost a referendum that would have made running for a fourth term possible. Having lifted more than half a million Bolivians out of poverty and changed the country’s power dynamics by empowering its indigenous majority since taking office in 2006, Morales wanted to keep hold of power. So, instead of accepting defeat in the referendum, he turned to the constitutional court — stacked with his supporters — which voted that term limits violated his human rights. He ran again in last month’s elections.
After polling booths closed on election night, it seemed the race was tight and a runoff vote would be necessary. But then, the vote count halted inexplicably for nearly 24 hours. When it resumed, Morales had a wide lead. Protests ensued and intensified quickly, especially after the Organization of American States released an audit in which it said it could not validate the results of the election.
Pressure built on Morales. Last week, police in the capital, La Paz, joined anti-government protesters, and several institutions, including the head of the armed forces, “suggested” to him that he consider resigning.
Shortly afterward, Morales did. With demonstrations and looting spreading, he accepted Mexico’s offer of asylum and went into hiding while he awaited the arrival of an official Mexican plane to extract him.
After a nail-biting journey, which included middle-of-the-night appeals to neighboring countries to allow use of their airspace, Morales arrived in Mexico City, where many were quick to point out that the fallen leader’s presidential victory was highly contested.
“Mexico will give asylum to an electoral fraudster who would have to be put in prison without bail if Mexican law were applied to him,” wrote Pascal Beltrán del Río, editorial director for the Mexican newspaper Excelsior, in a column on Tuesday.
Morales, the last member of the “pink tide” of leftist leaders in Latin America during the 1990s and early 2000s, received a warm reception from Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, upon arrival. Ebrard — who is the closest cabinet member of Mexico’s left-wing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador — hugged Morales on the airport tarmac.
Mexico has a long tradition of offering asylum to left-wing exiles, including Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky, but some questioned why Morales was quickly granted protection while thousands of other asylum-seekers have been deported in recent months.
But the snap judgments about exactly why Morales ended up in Mexico — was he pushed, or did he jump? — bear little relation to events in Bolivia, where facts are far from certain. At least three people have been killed in street battles and countless buildings have been ransacked since Election Day on Oct. 20, but it’s hard to decipher who exactly is responsible for what.
In one of the most vivid examples of political violence, protesters assaulted Patricia Arce, the pro-Morales mayor of Vinto, a small town in Bolivia. They cut her hair, covered her in red paint, and forced her to walk barefoot across the village.
Several news media outlets have been forced to temporarily close down following threats or armed attacks. Morales’ house was attacked, as well as those of several governors, according to local reports.
In Cochabamba, a city in central Bolivia, coca growers, some of Morales’ staunchest supporters, are receiving violent threats over WhatsApp, the popular messaging platform. The people making the threats aren’t bothering to conceal their real names, according to Kathryn Ledebur, a political expert in Bolivia and the director of the Andean Information Network, a nonprofit that promotes human rights.
“There’s been a shift to the far right” among the opposition, said Ledebur, adding that the anti-Morales protests have taken “a racist, classist tinge.”
Opposition protesters have been burning the Wiphala flag, which represents the Aymara indigenous nation to which Morales belongs — an important symbol in a region where fair-skinned, European descendants still hold significant power.
Jeanine Áñez, the highest-ranking remaining member of Bolivia’s government following the resignation of Morales and other top officials, held up a giant Bible after being sworn in as interim president on Tuesday. It was a defiant gesture from the opposition senator. Morales ushered in a new constitution in 2009 that separated church and state, stripping away the Catholic Church’s title as the official religion of Bolivia.
The country is likely to face more aftershocks from this political earthquake in the near future. Upon his arrival in Mexico, Morales announced that he would remain politically active, opening the possibility that his new home is simply a staging post for a return to Bolivia.
“While I’m alive,” he said, “the fight goes on.”