On Sunday Bolivians head to the polls again – this time for a referendum rather than an election. The country will decide whether or not they want Evo Morales, who leads a left wing socialist party, to be eligible for re election in 2020.
Evo Morales changed Bolivia from a republic to a plurinational state back in 2009 which in effect meant that the country had a new constitution. His official reason was to recognise the vast amount of different indigenous cultures and ethnicities throughout the country. But a rather convenient consequence was that it allowed Morales to run for three terms instead of the official two; the logic was that he is ruling over two separate constitutions. His third term will end in 2020 but he’s clearly not ready to retire just yet.
Last year Morales announced a referendum to give the Bolivian people a say as to whether he should be allowed to continue his presidency for a fourth term. The lead up to the February 21st referendum has seen intense campaigning from both sides of politics. On top of the usual TV and radio advertisements, much of La Paz (and I assume other cities) has been covered in graffiti supporting both the SI and NO campaigns. Social media has been a buzz with all sorts of arguments as to why we should vote one way or another with the hashtags #SI and #NO trending on Twitter and Facebook.
Unprecedented economic growth, political stability and impressive progress in indigenous affairs have rewarded Morales with strong voter support throughout his presidency but there are clear signs that his popularity is starting to waver. Last his year his party lost crucial ground in regional elections across the country. Even his traditional stronghold, the economically disadvantaged Aymara city of El Alto, fell to his right wing opposition.
However, it is a recent corruption scandal that could decide his future beyond 2020.
In 2007, a year after he took office, Morales had what the newspapers here call a “sentimental relationship” (that means they did the business) with a young woman named Gabriela Zapata. Around that time, Zapata gave birth to Morales’ son but the child is said to have died shortly after. All of this was kept secret from the public until a Bolivian reporter by the name of Carlos Valverde broke the story last month.
The relationship wouldn’t have caused much controversy on its own. After all, Morales is single and entitled to sleep with whoever he wants. What’s concerning about the story is that Zapata is a senior executive of CAMC, a huge Chinese engineering company. CAMC has been awarded some $500 million worth of contracts from the Morales’ government, much of which has reportedly been since Zapata started working for the company in 2013. Bolivians are understandably angry at these revelations. The news here has branded the scandal as a “traffic of influence”.
After the story broke Morales stated that he cut all ties with Zapata shortly after the death of their child. But his detractors were quick to pounce, publishing a photo of the two together, arm in arm, at last years carnival in Oruro. Morales’ defence was that he poses for hundreds of photos and although this particular woman seemed familiar, he thought nothing of it at the time. Unfortunately for Morales, many Bolivians have a hard time believing he didn’t recognise the mother of his own child.
Rumours abound that their love child is still alive. Pictures showing Zapata with a school-aged child have been frantically shared across Facebook by those in the #NO camp. Other photos have emerged documenting the child’s enrolment in Calvert; La Paz’ most expensive private school.
It’s hard to say with certainty the extent their relationship played in the awarding of CAMC contracts. Morales pointed the finger at the US ambassador for creating a smear campaign against him by leaking the story to Valverde, but Valverde and the ambassador were quick to dismiss the allegation as unfounded. To be fair to Morales, considering the history of US involvement in Latin America, his allegation is not that far fetched.
The Zapata case seems to evoke more questions than answers.
Apart from the one photo of them together in 2015, there is still no evidence that the two have had a continuing relationship. Maintaining a secret relationship while holding the top job in the country would be no easy feat. If they did, why would he allow them to be photographed together in public? On the other hand, if the couple had cut ties since 2007, why would he knowingly award her with $500 million worth of government contracts (a move akin to political suicide)? Furthermore, how did this woman, who according to local media has only just been awarded her high school certificate and has lied on various occasions about her university qualifications, become the commercial manager of a large multinational corporation?
A deadly protest on Wednesday in El Alto has further tarnished Morales’ image. A march originally organised by local residents demanding better health and education turned deadly when an angry mob set fire to a municipal building. Six people died of asphyxiation and 28 were injured.
The incident is a huge blow to Morales’ #SI campaign because the protest was only said to have turned violent once a large group of unionists allied to his Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS) arrived and took over. The mob forced entry into the building and burnt official documents believed to be evidence, starting the deadly blaze. The evidence is said to relate to an investigation into MAS corruption and a lawyer heading the corruption inquiry was killed in the blaze.
Morales has done his best to distance himself from the renegade unionists, promising a full inquiry into the incident and punishment for those responsible. However, for many Bolivians lining up to vote on Sunday, this might be too little too late.
POST REFERENDUM UPDATE:
Evo lost the referendum by a narrow margin of 1%. He accepted his defeat with dignity and humor, joking that the results were merely a result of confusion, “49% of the population voted YES, I should continue as president while 51% voted NO, I shouldn’t leave the presidency” (at least I think he was joking).
There’s also been some interesting developments in the Zapata case. She was arrested on March 25th, just days after the referendum as part of the promised inquiry into the CAMC “traffic of influence” scandal. She’s been accused of embezzling public funds and forging government documents and currently resides in a La Paz jail awaiting trial. Even her (recently awarded) high school certificate is claimed to have been forged.
The day after her arrest, in what is reminiscent of a day time telenova (soap opera), a woman claiming to be her aunt made a statement claiming that Evo’s son is actually alive. The boy, named Ernesto Fidel, supposedly lives in La Paz and attends the prestigious Calvert College which is consistent with previous claims of the #NO campaign.
This obviously caused quite a stir in the press. Evo was quick to address the media, stating that he was delighted to hear about his son and would like to meet him as quickly as possible to act as a father figure.
Zapata denied his request, saying that she would present their son in front of the international media at a time that was convenient (for her, I assume). Evo threatened to sue her for defamation if she failed to prove the child exists, but she continues to refuse to cooperate.
It’s been over a month now and there’s still no sign of Ernesto Fiel, leaving many to conclude that tales of his survival were nothing more than a desperate fabrication.