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Bolivia’s Evo Morales Faces Questions About a Lover, Their Child, and Her Chinese Employer

Key questions include whether Morales knew the child he said had died as a baby is actually still alive, and whether he was in contact with his former love when she got a job in a company with lucrative government contracts.

by VICE News
Mar 1 2016, 8:10pm

Imagen por Juan Karita/AP

The corruption scandal erupting around Bolivia's president Evo Morales appears to be following the plotline of a classic Latin American telenovela, complete with a femme fatale tricking her lover, a long-lost lovechild and, just possibly, a happy ending.

At least that seems to be Morales' take on the latest revelations about his personal life that have been blurring the boundary between the public and the private ever since he lost a key constitutional referendum last month.

Morales narrowly lost the vote on whether to allow him to run for reelection in 2019 — and so potentially remain in power for 20 years — after it emerged that his former lover, Gabriela Zapata, was now a senior executive at the Chinese company CAMC. The company had won seven contracts from the Bolivian government worth nearly $600 million dollars, and six of those contracts involved no bidding.

The pair met in 2005, when Zapata was 18 years old. Morales, then a rabble-rousing leader of a coca growers' union, was 27 years older. They had a child together in 2007.

Related: The Year the 'Pink Tide' Turned: Latin America in 2015

Asked about the child after the relationship was revealed, Morales originally said he had died while still a baby.

Then, last Friday, Zapata was arrested on charges of illegal enrichment, influence-peddling and money laundering, related to her lobbying the government on behalf of CAMC, including letters allegedly demanding preferential treatment for the company. This brought with it the revelation by Zapata's lawyer that the boy is alive and being looked after by Zapata's family at an unknown location in Bolivia.

The lawyer said that the child, who is named Ernesto Fidel after the two principal leaders of the Cuban revolution, is "alive and well."

Zapata, meanwhile, sobbed through her first court hearing on Sunday, where she appeared in handcuffs and police prevented journalists from talking with her. The judge denied her request for bail on the grounds that she was a "flight risk."

Gabriela Zapata is led away from a Bolivian court in handcuffs. (Photo by Juan Karita/AP Images)

Now all of Bolivia is asking whether Morales misled the country about the nature of his relationship with Zapata, and their son, or whether his former lover misled him.

It might seem like a prurient question if the answer were not key to whether the president, a socialist who rose from humble beginnings in a remote indigenous Aymara community, might be personally corrupt. Details still needing to be nailed down include the nature of any ongoing involvement Morales had with Zapata up to her arrest, and whether her employment at CAMC influenced his government's decisions when granting the company lucrative contracts. 

One person who is largely taking Morales at his word, at least about the child, is Kathryn Ledebur, who heads the Andean Information Network, a Bolivian nonprofit.

She pointed out that it is common knowledge that Morales, a bachelor, already has two other grown children by two other women, and insisted he had nothing to gain from covering up the existence of Ernesto Fidel.

"In Bolivia, fathering a child out of wedlock is just not a problem for a male politician, including with a mother so much younger than him," Ledebur told VICE News. "The idea that Bolivia is a Catholic country and therefore most Bolivians would disapprove is wide of the mark. This is not exactly unusual in Andean culture. He's seen as virile."

Martín Sivak, an Argentine who has written several books about Bolivia including an unauthorized biography of Morales, added that "so far" there was no evidence that the president had authorized Zapata to profit from her relationship with him.

"Morales made it clear from day one that his government would be that of the single person," Sivak told VICE News. "He broke the mould for being a Bolivian president in many ways. Until he came along, the rule was that a president had to be a practicing Catholic, with a degree and a family. At the start of his presidency, Morales even said he wanted his cabinet to be single, to dedicate themselves to Bolivia."

Morales, meanwhile, is insisting he wants to fulfill his responsibilities as a father, telling reporters on Monday that he wanted "the supposed aunt" to introduce him to his boy.

"If the family allows it, I want him to stay with me," he said at a press conference where no questions were allowed. "If he is alive, this means joy for me. It's like a blessing that he is alive after all, although I ask myself why since 2007 they hid him from me, for what reasons they kept their distance, what interests were at play?"

Vice President Álvaro García, meanwhile, has accused the conservative opposition of using the child to conspire against Morales.

García also talked to reporters on Monday, publicly brandishing a photograph of Zapata's brother and sister with Samuel Doria Medina — the center right businessman who Morales crushed in the 2014 presidential election.

"The opposition know all about this issue [about Ernesto Fidel] because the two siblings of Miss Gabriela Zapata work for them and are politically linked to them," García told reporters.

Doria Medina rejected the claims.

"It's absurd," he said. "We have nothing to do with this. President, meet your responsibilities in this case."

In the meantime, Bolivia waits with baited breath for the next installment of the complex tale that threatens to rock the nation.

Related: Evo Morales Is No Longer Invincible, But It's Not Because Bolivia Is Moving to the Right

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