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The fall of President Evo Morales in Bolivia has surprising relevance beyond that poor country landlocked in South America.

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Bolivia shares with Guatemala the distinction of being the only countries in the Western Hemisphere that have indigenous majorities. Everywhere else the European conquests reduced the original populations to smaller or larger minorities.

Evo Morales was the first leader in Bolivia’s history to successfully mobilize coca growers and other indigenous people, both rural and urban, taking power by free election, in 2006. He pushed through major social and economic reforms that substantially reduced poverty and imposed effective regulatory control over foreign-owned extractive industries. Facing unyielding opposition from conservative interests based in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, he nevertheless won a second term easily in 2009. A controversial new constitution permitted him to be reelected in 2014.

Although he narrowly lost a referendum to allow him to run again in 2019, a favorable Supreme Court decision let him run anyway. The conduct of the election and the counting of votes were widely protested, especially after a suspension of public announcements of results was followed by announcements of final results that would have allowed Morales to be elected without facing a runoff. Subsequent popular protests finally elicited Morales’ resignation on 10 November 2019, after he lost support from the armed forces and police.

Since the late 19th century Latin American countries operate within a political and economic range imposed by the United States as the hegemonic power of the hemisphere. Since about the 1960s the US has backed the establishment of formal democracies (along with its long-standing support of capitalist economies open to foreign investment) throughout Latin America (with a lapse in the 1980s when we backed authoritarian regimes). Bolivia has been under a formal democracy since the 1980s: a succession of elected governments have been forced from power before the end of their terms more often than not. For most of its history, government instability has been the rule. Morales’ 13 years in power marks one of the longest tenures of any president, and the longest for a democratically elected president.

When Morales came to power in 2006, he largely avoided confrontation with the US while pushing through the most substantive social and economic reforms in Bolivian history and transforming the political system by organizing and bringing to power the indigenous majority for the first time. Because of Bolivia’s weakness and isolation, it was never worth the trouble for the US to bring him down. Fidel Castro in Cuba decisively defied that whole political-economic model. His regime survived but paid a heavy price. No subsequent leftist regime in Latin America has followed Cuba. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, with his oil wealth, was defiant but maintained the semblance of multiparty democracy. Morales was more careful—and more successful. He brought about changes in Bolivia’s society and economy that will be hard to reverse, without ever quite pushing the US too far.

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Democracy American-style, as propagated in Latin America, is based on two contradictory principles: majority rule and minority rights. Majority rule means that all citizens should vote and the candidate with a majority should win. Minority rights mean that those who lose elections may nonetheless not be oppressed. In particular, minority rights implies property rights. So a majority should not have the right to take the property of a minority. But in a context of extreme inequality, in which those that have most of the property may have acquired it under shady circumstances, an emphasis on property rights freezes that unjust economic order. Morales, democratically elected, broke through that impasse with an approach to democracy that privileged majority rule. He could do that because he was a charismatic leader in whom the hopes of his followers were uniquely invested.

But charisma cannot be passed on. The successor never has the kind of authority the original leader had. Nicolás Maduro, the successor to Chávez, has found this out. So the charismatic leader is impelled to hang on to power, even as his support erodes.

But Morales saw that his position was untenable. So he resigned. Perhaps he lives to fight another day. He still has much of his original popular base, the indigenous majority of the country. Out of power, out of the country, he will still be able to render the country ungovernable without him.

Consider Peronism in Argentina. Perón first mobilized the working class in the 1940s, was overthrown in 1955, systematically destabilized the country, and was finally allowed to compete in an election that brought him back to power in 1973. Although he died within a year, Argentina still cannot be governed without the Peronists (who just defeated anti-Peronist Mauricio Macri in this year’s presidential elections).

To sum up: standard democracy is prone to gridlock that prevents major policy departures because of minority rights. Charismatic leaders mobilizing majorities can break the gridlock and bring about important changes. But charismatic leaders cannot have legitimate successors, so they tend to hang on to power too long. But once removed, if they retain their popular base, they can rule from below and may return to power.

impeachment unavoidable

We who confront Donald Trump should take notice.

John Peeler

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