Dreams, premonitions, myths and history carried Evo Morales over a small bridge from his year-long exile in Mexico and Argentina back to Bolivia. He left the country a deposed President and returns shorn of his office but now, it seems, he could step into the shoes of two continental giants who chiselled his character, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Is Evo destined to emerge as the inheritor of their mantle, a magnet of the dispossessed and the disaffected in a continent ravaged by Covid, from the south of Rio Bravo to the Orinoco?
“Nayawa jiwtxa nayjarusti waranqa waranqanakawa kutanipxa” (I die but I will return tomorrow as millions)”: those were the final words of Aymara leader Tupac Katari, before being quartered by the Spaniards, on 15 november 1781. These words went viral after Evo’s escape from Bolivia last year
First, came the dreams. In October, Evo dreamt he was climbing the peak of a mountain and a medal was pinned on to him there. A week later, he had the exact same dream. That's when, he says, he knew his party MAS (Movement towards Socialism) would win the November presidential elections. Those around him were put off by his cocky confidence but Evo had had such premonitions in the past. Before his sister died in August, he had dreamt that a dead aunt had come looking for her. Evo's dreams proved accurate: his party won a resounding victory, his former minister of the economy and his foreign minister were elected President and Vice-President and his exile was soon to be over.
Only a year earlier in 2019, Evo was living out a nightmare. As a coup unfolded in La Paz, he took refuge in the party's stronghold of the Cochabamba region, confined to an airfield, with the coup plotters sending messages to his security detail offering them good money in U.S. dollars to hand over the President to them, either for him to be eliminated or to be despatched to the United States. It took considerable manoeuvring by the Mexican and Argentinian Presidents before a Mexican Air Force aircraft was allowed to spirit away Evo and his Vice-President, the scholarly Alvaro Garcia Linera, in the darkness of the tropical night to exile in Mexico.
Exile is embedded in Latin American history, starting right from its colonisation. The Crown in Madrid not only sent many of its undesirables on permanent exile to the Americas but also relocated troublemakers from there to mainland Spain, Puerto Rico or even to the Philippines. Exile became commonplace during the war of independence. Simon Bolivar, the continent's liberator, died away from his native Venezuela as his dream of a Gran Colombia dissolved around him. In Chile, Bernardo O'Higgins and Jose de San Martin and their adversaries, the Carrera brothers, all experienced exile. Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago de Chile, Caracas and Mexico City hosted large exile populations. One of the more famous ones in the latter metropolis was Fidel Castro who collected the vanguard of the Cuban revolution there.
Latin America became a refuge for thousands of Republicans fleeing Franco's murderous persecution during and after the Spanish Civil War. Then came a wave of refugees from Italy, Japan and Germany with fascism and World War II. The tide turned soon after as the New World began to expel its own. The Argentinian Juan Domingo Peon suffered a long exile to Spain in the middle of the last century while thousands of ordinary Chileans, Argentinians and Uruguayans had to flee as political exiles during the terror of the 1970s. The Colombian exodus has never stopped. Their angst and nostalgia for a lost homeland was diffused through the writings and poems of Pablo Neruda, Eduardo Galeano and Mario Benedetti, among so many others, and imprinted in the collective memory.
Evo and Alvaro Garcia Linera at the Chimore airport rally
Evo's exile was brief, it barely lasted a year, and his return was triumphant. Chimore airport, from where he had fled Bolivia before dawn, became the site of the biggest rally of his return with a crowd of at least half a million. Sustaining him in his exile was the myth of Tupac Katari, the indigenous Bolivian leader, whose last apocryphal words were said to have been, I die but will return as millions. To the Indians of Bolivia, that myth is being vindicated, but this time they are the winning side. Evo has settled down to life as a union leader once more, his long working days no longer taken up with matters of state, mobilising and uniting the miners, the public sector workers, the peasants of whom his father was one and Indian coca growers to protect the fragile new government from the ancien regime still conspiring with paramilitary groups and within the military and the police special forces.
The new Bolivian government has every reason to be wary of the police and their impeccably repressive pedigree. Originally modernised by a Prussian General the 1930s, it was at one point trained by none other than Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. U.S. intelligence had helped Klaus escape from France to Bolivia where he upgraded the police skills in the art of torture and disappearing opposition activists and later teamed up with the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, all the while operating as an informant of the United States. The Pentagon looked after the force during the various dictatorships of the last century. Naturally, it has the famously corrupt police carrying out its orders, regardless of who pays their wages. They make much more from extortion rackets in any case.
The effect of Evo's return is unlikely to stop at Bolivia's frontiers, and not just because it has reminded the continental Left of its winning ways. Straight after the initial welcoming rallies, he met indigenous, trade union and progressive leaders from Ecuador and Argentina and called for a congress of Latin American social movements in Cochabamba from December 17-19. The aim is to have an international indigenous organisation with an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist focus and also to promote regional integration. Evo has said he wants to reanimate Celac and Unasur, the two regional organisations set up when the Left was in power in many of these countries. The right-wing governments put them to sleep after the progressive wave receded, and it is hard to see how Evo can revive them when he is no longer a head of state. He could help Luis Arce, the Bolivian President, to do so and if in the immediate future some more governments turn to the Left it could very well happen, but for all his willingness it is something beyond Evo's capabilities for now.
His big political impact might be in Ecuador next year. He seems to have united the Leftist candidate for next year's presidential elections in Ecuador and the leader of the largest indigenous coalition there. The two forces have squabbled since Rafael Correa's time in office but Ecuador's huge indigenous population could propel a united slate to power in the Andean nation. There are other countries with a majority indigenous population such as Peru and Paraguay and Guatemala in Central America but none of them give any indication of falling immediately for Evo's charms.
The indigenous populations in the continent neither have a common or monolithic identity nor have they forged social or ethnic movements across national boundaries. They are not immune to the fractures of class, ideology or seeping non-indigenous cultures but the economic boom years of exporting raw materials is petering out and political business as usual is coming to an end. This could be fertile ground for Evo to fashion a united, revolutionary indigenous bloc and reassert their common identity transgressing national boundaries but as of now success is far from being guaranteed.
Evo's triumphant return has sealed a contemporary myth in Latin America where many on the Left, more at the grassroots than the leaders, were looking up to someone who would fill the charisma void after the death of Fidel and Chavez. Once their understudy, he might emerge as their heir, as a oral reference, as the eye of the hurricane as his stature grows. Like them before he has the moral capital and an iron will to strike back at a vicious but slowly-crumbling empire.
My Life, Evo's autobiography published during his exile in Argentina