Waving the Whipala, the checkered colourful Indigenous flag and chanting, “Evo, Evo,” thousands of cheering supporters welcomed the return of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s maverick former president on Wednesday to the town of Chimore.
Morales, the nation’s first Indigenous president, crossed the border from Argentina on Monday, one day after Luis Arce, his protegee, was sworn in as Bolivia’s president – in a major victory to the leftist Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party.
“We are an organised and mobilised people that have shown over a short period of time that Bolivia can change,” Morales said shortly after arriving in Chimore. “But this struggle is not just domestic, it is international,” he said, “that is the great responsibility we have.”
Un año atrás salimos del aeropuerto de Chimoré y dijimos que volveríamos millones. Aquí estamos, millones hoy.
A nombre de las víctimas de las masacres, de los perseguidos y exiliados, a nombre de todos los que sufrieron, muchas gracias, hermanas y hermanos, por no abandonarnos. pic.twitter.com/352SDt1X0p
— Evo Morales Ayma (@evoespueblo) November 11, 2020
[Translation: A year ago we left the Chimore airport saying that we would return by the millions. Here we are, millions today. On behalf of the victims of the massacres, the persecuted and the exiled, on behalf of all those who suffered, thank you very much, sisters and brothers, for not abandoning us.]
Morales, travelling with his former vice president, Alvaro Garcia, on land as part of an 800-vehicle caravan, did not make a stop in the administrative capital, La Paz. Instead, he headed to his hometown of Chapare, where he rose to prominence as a leader of coca farmers.
Amid a polarised and tense political environment in Bolivia that gripped the nation following Morales’s resignation last year, neither Arce, nor his vice president David Choquehuanca, nor any of the new members of the government came to greet him. They did not even mention him in their inauguration speeches.
“Morales has enough power, he already implies enough of a threat,” said Raul Penaranda, a Bolivian journalist and political analyst.
“Going to welcome him would have been a very risky move on the part of the Bolivian government,” Penaranda said.
Morales, 61, was an iconic, popular figure during his 14 years in office. But he also alienated many Bolivians, including among his own party, after insisting on running for a fourth term in office, in defiance of a referendum against extending term limits. His administration was also marred by allegations of corruption and overreach of power.
In November 2019, he fled the country amid nationwide protests that erupted after he declared he had narrowly won an election that was plagued by allegations of fraud. The results were annulled. Vote-rigging allegations have since been disputed and Morales has charged that he was the victim of an orchestrated coup.
At least 36 people died in post-election violence.
On October 18, after 11 turbulent months under an interim right-wing government led by conservative Senator Jeanine Anez during which clashes broke out in the streets and roadblocks caused shortages of critical supplies and mistrust in the government grew – Arce won rerun elections in a landslide, paving the way for Morales to come back home.
Morales is still facing charges of treason and sedition, lodged by Anez’s administration for allegedly stirring violent protests in the country in the aftermath of his resignation. Rights groups have blasted the charges as politically motivated, and soon after Arce took office, a judge cancelled the arrest warrant against him.
“I had no doubt that I would return,” he told a large crowd of supporters on Monday shortly after he crossed into the country, “but I did not imagine that it would be so soon.”
But what role Morales – a polarising figure in Bolivian politics – will play now is less clear.
Arce, often referred to by his nickname Lucho, has insisted that Morales will have no role in his new government, and Morales has said that he would only be working on organising with labour unions.
“I will share my experience in the union struggles, because the fight continues,” he told supporters on Monday. “As long as capitalism exists, the people’s fight will continue, I’m convinced of this.”
But experts said Morales, who remains the head of the MAS and continues to command strong loyalty among his core of supporters in rural areas and Indigenous groups, is likely to continue to loom large not only over the party he founded, but on the politics of the country as a whole.
“Returning to the country with this massive reception, Morales is trying to send a twofold message,” said Jorge Derpic, assistant professor in sociology, Latin American and Caribbean studies at the University of Georgia.
“One for the opposition and the international audiences to demonstrate that he still has lots of support and is still a main figure in Bolivian politics,” Derpic said, “and then another message to his own party, an attempt to reassert his position as the most powerful man in the MAS, the one who calls the shots.”
Morales’s return poses unique challenges for Arce, who is taking the reins of the country after a year of political turmoil that often turned violent, and a coronavirus pandemic that led to one of highest mortality rates in the world.
Arce ran on a platform to heal the nation from partisan conflict and lift the country out of its economic hardship. The country’s economy is expected to shrink by at least 6 percent this year, pushing tens of thousands of Bolivians back into poverty.
On Tuesday, the government’s new cabinet was sworn in. Although most are MAS loyalists with close ties to Morales, not one was a minister for Morales.
Jim Shultz, the founder and executive director of The Democracy Center and a Bolivia expert, said the country is currently facing three simultaneous crises: COVID-19, economic turmoil, and erosion of trust in the democratic process.
“If you’re Arce and Choquehuanca, you don’t need the former president looking over your shoulder telling you what to do and getting in the way of you’re dealing with a country that is dealing with three crises,” Shultz tells Al Jazeera.
“All three of these things are harder to deal with if you have a fourth political crisis, which is having a former president meddling in the politics of the country.”
Arce, who served as economy minister under Morales for more than a decade and oversaw policies that led to an unprecedented surge in growth and a sharp reduction in poverty in the country – won with 55 percent of the vote, significantly more than the 47 percent that Morales obtained last year – signalling that many voters embrace the MAS, but wish to move away from the divisiveness that Morales projects.
“It is in Arce’s best interest to demonstrate independence, in order to gain more legitimacy for his administration, especially from those who oppose Morales,” said Filipe Carvalho, a Brazil analyst with the Eurasia Group.
“But ultimately, Arce may be constrained politically because of this influence that Evo has.”
At the Chimore rally on Wednesday, a MAS stronghold and the same airport Morales used when he fled the country a year ago, he told supporters that he had talked to Arce earlier that morning and that he was “trying to come” to greet him, but was busy “organising”.
Penaranda said Arce is going to have to try to maintain a safe distance from his former mentor, which is likely to prove difficult for a man who is so accustomed to being in the limelight, and is currently calculating his return to national politics.
“Arce is going to try to maintain a distance to show that he is not overly close to Morales, but at the same time, he cannot move too much away,” Penaranda said.
“Morales can be a very important ally, but he is also a shadow,” he added, “so we are going to have to see to what point both can manage this relationship, it’s going to be interesting.”