LA PAZ, Bolivia — When the socialist party of former Bolivian President Evo Morales won a landslide victory in elections last week, Morales made it clear that he couldn’t wait to jump on a plane home from Argentina, where he is in political exile.
But new President-elect Luis Arce, who won on a ticket for the party Morales still technically heads—the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS)— said there is “no role” for his predecessor, and that he’ll be the one in charge, speaking to tensions between the old and the new left in the Andean nation.
“If Evo Morales wants to help us, he will be very welcome,” Arce told the BBC. “But that doesn’t mean Morales will be in government. It will be my government.” Arce is expected to take power in the next few weeks.
David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s vice president-elect, told local media during the campaign trail: “The people are telling us in meetings that the conditions that surrounded [Evo] shouldn’t come back […] We’re going to be a government of young people. We have to give new people a chance.”
At just 31 years old, MAS Senator Adriana Salvatierra is one of those young faces. When she arrives at her La Paz office a block from the national congress and presidential palace, she greets her staff like girlfriends, chatting and gently lifting a stray lock of hair from her colleague’s face.
Despite her young age, she has already had an eventful career. She became a MAS senator at just 25, and in January 2019, when she was 29, she became president of the Senate, the youngest in Bolivia’s history. The responsibility felt “enormous,” she said. “Once, the president [Morales] told me, ‘I know that my mistakes could close the doors to thousands of comrades from the indigenous movement, because a mistake creates stigma.’ […] One of my mistakes could contribute to stigmatizing a generation of young people.”
When Morales and his vice president, Álvaro García Linera, resigned last year, she was third in line for the presidency. But there was no way her opponents would allow that, she said: Opposition mobs burned down the house of the then-president of the chamber of deputies, Victor Borda, and beat up his brother. Borda would have been next in line for the presidency after her.
Salvatierra believes the MAS, a party originally formed from Bolivia’s social movements, lost touch with its roots, turning activist passion into a bureaucracy. “A revolution that distances itself even one centimeter from its people is a revolution that becomes fragile,” she said.
Now that the MAS has been voted back in, the new government is keen to include more young people like Salvatierra. She won’t be a senator this coming term, but she’s seen as a rising star of Bolivian politics by observers, alongside young leaders such as current Senate President Eva Copa and coca grower Andrónico Rodríguez, who are also in their early 30s.
Morales ruled Bolivia from 2006 until November 2019, when he was forced out following controversial electoral fraud allegations. Many see his ouster as a coup. Originally from an indigenous Aymara community on the windswept Andean plains near Oruro, he moved to the tropical Chapare region, where he rose to national prominence as a leader of the coca growers union.
His government was recognized for its success in reducing poverty and illiteracy and tackling discrimination against indigenous people. But by 2019, he was running for his fourth consecutive term, ignoring a 2016 referendum to limit presidents to two terms in office.
Ignoring the referendum wasn’t just Morales’ decision, according to Salvatierra. “We were wrong, probably as a party,” she said. “[…] Evo Morales brings together the principles that unite us: anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism […] And what happens if someone comes along who doesn’t bring together those things? That was our fear.”
Bolivian political analyst Dr. Diego von Vacano believes Morales will help keep his party grounded in the coming government. “I think Evo is very much a political being. He lives for politics,” he said. “He will step back a little bit and stand in the background and maybe serve as a conduit, as a kind of intermediary with the MAS bases, the indigenous, the cocaleros in some areas.”
Despite his evident desire to return to Bolivia, Morales is unlikely to be back until Arce is sworn in in the coming weeks, since the interim government has slapped him with serious criminal charges.
The events of the past year have inspired new party activists to join the MAS, too. Vladimir Aviles Perez, 30, wasn’t politically active before last year’s elections, but he joined MAS’ youth wing after witnessing security forces brutally crack down on protesters during the conservative interim government that replaced Morales.
To him, Morales’ government was revolutionary, but now, the MAS needs rejuvenation. “We know about the old MAS screwups. But Evo Morales was a leader who changed the country from the roots up,” he told VICE News, sitting in the shade of a tree in La Paz’s Plaza España.
Nearby, a woman in indigenous dress sat on the ground, selling bundles of spinach and parsley from a cloth. In the background, shiny yellow cable-car pods float past like space shuttles, part of the emblematic Morales-era transport project that connected the highland city of El Alto with La Paz.
“The social revolution he created, nobody will take that away… they couldn’t take indigenous people’s pride away, not even when they killed us,” he said, referring to the massacres of indigenous protesters during the interim government.
At one point, he looked over his shoulder and quietly asked to pause the interview and move. Behind him, four police officers had gathered surreptitiously. Young indigenous activists like him have been on the receiving end of persistent harassment from the police since interim President Jeanine Áñez came to power.
Aviles Perez feels MAS’ power is too concentrated in the coca-producing region of Chapare, Morales’ stomping ground. He also thinks there are problems with cliques and that it should be more open. But he believes the persecution MAS members faced during the interim government united them. “They took everything away, they even took our fear away. What more could they take from us?” he said.
At the top of many Bolivians’ minds is whether the incoming government will prosecute members of the interim government for the human rights abuses it is accused of.
“They were very serious violations, so I think something will probably be pursued,” Von Vacano said. “But they have to be measured because … it's important not to appear vindictive and overly vengeful, which is something that Bolivia has always had a problem with.”
Aviles Perez was more forthright: “I won’t rest until justice is done,” he said.
The incoming government will face the challenges of fixing an economy devastated by COVID and bringing unity and stability to a politically polarized country. But with well over 50% of the vote, the odds are in their favour. When asked how she feels about the election results, Salvatierra breaks into a deep smile. “Proud,” she says.