- - Monday, December 26, 2016

At a time when leftist populism was supposed to be receding in Latin America, Bolivian President Evo Morales is trying to buck the trend by announcing his intention to seek an unprecedented fourth presidential term.

Even though 52 percent of Bolivians voted against extending presidential term limits in a national referendum in February and the Catholic Church said the move could “widen schisms in Bolivian society” and “generate violence,” international reaction to Mr. Morales‘ plan has been muted. Meanwhile, heavy criticism has rained down on the authoritarian moves of the leftist government in Venezuela.

With President Obama focused on outreach to Cuba and the shaky peace deal in Colombia during his final weeks in office, some critics say he is giving authoritarian figures such as Mr. Morales a pass.

“The Obama administration has relegated human rights and democracy as an afterthought in Latin America,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican.

Latin American countries have been traditionally averse to appearing to interfere in each other’s domestic affairs, even as Bolivian opposition figures say Mr. Morales‘ drive to stay in office threatens the democratic rule of law.

“What Evo Morales has done is a convincing demonstration that he is no longer interested in law, that he is the king and that the laws, the constitution and the Bolivian vote are subject to his whim,” said Jorge Quiroga, opposition leader and former Bolivian president.

Mr. Morales insisted he was just the honoring the wishes of his supporters to stay on for the 2019 vote.

“If the people say, ‘Let’s go with Evo,’ then let’s continue defeating the right and continue with our process,” he said earlier this month.

Bolivia’s turn of events further embarrasses many U.S. and European Union policy analysts, who have argued that record annual growth of near 7 percent — the fruit of economic policies administered by a Harvard-trained team running the Bolivian Ministry of Economy and Public Finance — would moderate the political ambitions of Bolivia’s first indigenous president.

But Mr. Morales has made clear his determination to resist the rightward drift in regional politics and has appealed to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for support. Venezuelan Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz spoke this month at a major gathering of Bolivia’s ruling Movement for Socialism, where Mr. Morales made his announcement that he would seek another term.

MAS officials unanimously endorsed the president’s plan and were already seeking ways to get around the constitutional law that technically allows only two consecutive terms in office.

Although this next election would be for Mr. Morales‘ fourth term, a panel ruled that his first term in office did not count because it was truncated by a change in the constitution in 2009. Mr. Isturiz hailed the decision as a “turning point” in the “reconquest” of recently lost “social spaces.”

The left in retreat

It has been a rough year for Latin American socialists.

Brazil’s once-hegemonic Workers’ Party has been chased out of power. Its charismatic leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is facing arrest on corruption charges, and Mr. Silva’s hand-picked successor has been impeached and removed from office.

Almost 15 years of uninterrupted leftist Peronista rule came to an end in Argentina with the election of conservative Mauricio Macri. Peru and Paraguay have similarly elected businessmen as presidents, and Chile’s governing center-left coalition under President Michelle Bachelet is down in the opinion polls and internally divided.

But Mr. Morales has been nurturing what critics say is an environment conducive to one-party rule and what the president has labeled an “irreversible process of change.”

Following the example of Mr. Maduro, who has weathered an economic meltdown and threats of congressional impeachment, Mr. Morales has clamped controls on the judiciary, the military and the press. The country’s traditionally fragmented opposition also has helped MAS keep power, even though Mr. Morales‘ approval ratings hover just around 50 percent.

Judicial appointments are now based on party loyalty rather than legal qualifications, said Bolivian constitutional lawyer Omar Barrientos.

“The once independently powerful constitutional court has been turned into a government rubber stamp, and the Supreme Court seems headed that way,” said Mr. Barrientos, who once advised the U.S. State Department in drafting anti-drug legislation.

Morales supporters say the government has “democratized” the judiciary through the popular election of judges from candidate lists drawn up by the Congress, where MAS holds over two-thirds of the seats.

Mr. Morales has similarly moved to enhance his leverage with the military by establishing an “anti-imperialist” staff college to screen officers seeking promotion. Presiding over its first graduation days before his election announcement Dec. 17, Mr. Morales told newly minted captains that “ideological commitment is as important as any other military attribute.”

The government is turning up political repression. Prominent journalists, including TV anchor Carlos Valverde, have gone into exile. It was Mr. Valverde’s reporting on a scandal involving corrupt dealings between a mistress of Mr. Morales and a Chinese construction company that contributed significantly to the government’s defeat in February’s referendum on amending the constitution.

Mr. Valverde said intensifying police harassment persuaded him to flee to neighboring Argentina in April.

“Police kept showing up at my house. My telephones were constantly tapped,” he said.

OAS appeal

Mr. Quiroga, who ran against Mr. Morales in the 2014 elections, has written open letters to the Organization of American States about Bolivia’s deteriorating democracy and called on the opposition to work jointly “as much in the judicial field, as constitutional, international and democratic venues to defend the rule of law and the constitution.”

But opposition Sen. Carlos Klinsky acknowledged that it would be difficult to mount a credible challenge to Mr. Morales in elections scheduled for 2019.

“Talks to try to form a single front have started,” he said.

Like many Latin American leaders, Mr. Morales has come to rely on Chinese investments of over $7 billion to cushion Bolivia against the effects of falling commodity prices. Natural gas exports, which account for 70 percent of Bolivian state revenue, have declined 35 percent over the past year.

Russia’s Gazprom has promised to finance gas exploration to compensate for the lack of Western investment. Bolivia’s registered gas reserves could dry up in a few years, leading to a severe economic recession, international oil analysts say.

Closer dealings with Moscow may have encouraged Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera to openly propose a “Russian solution” to constitutional impediments for a fourth term: Mr. Morales would switch to the vice presidential spot in the next elections, with a loyal supporter at the top of the ticket to act as caretaker president for one term. That was how Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to circumvent term limits to keep control of the Kremlin, Mr. Garcia said.

But the government has had one road blocked since Mr. Morales made his intentions known to hang on to power. The courts ruled out another referendum attempt to reverse the close loss in February’s referendum.

“You cannot raise a new consultation, a new process with the same content on something that has already been decided on by the Constitutional Court, whether or not it has been submitted to a referendum,” Judge Ruddy Flores said.

Labor leaders who have gained management positions in Bolivia’s main state enterprises say they are working on several formulas to bypass constitutional restrictions.

“One way or another, Evo will continue as president,” said Rolando Borda of the national oil company YPFB. “We have no one else.”

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