- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2017

Buenos Aires, Argentina | Bolivian leftist President Evo Morales, already embroiled in a fierce fight at home over efforts to blow through constitutional term limits and remain in power for nearly two decades, said Thursday the Trump administration’s new criticism of his plans has only made him more determined to press ahead.

The State Department and the head of the Organization of American States have both come out against the populist former coca farmer’s plan to seek a new five-year term. The State Department said in a statement that the U.S. was “deeply disturbed” by a court ruling this week giving Mr. Morales the green light — despite a voter referendum that upheld term limits just a year ago.

“Now I’m determined, and I will be a candidate, brothers and sisters, in 2019, all because of anger with the United States,” Mr. Morales said at an event in central Cochabamba state. “Why do they have to threaten, to intimidate?”

His broadside came in a week of political intrigue in La Paz that started with Bolivia’s Constitutional Court approving a potential Morales candidacy even though the country’s 2009 constitution — devised by Mr. Morales himself — stipulates, in no uncertain terms, that the president “can be re-elected consecutively only once.”

Citing the American Convention on Human Rights, though, the court ruled unanimously that a citizen’s prerogative to run for office trumped any such restrictions.

“Evo Morales and his party built up a constitutional controversy by claiming that their political rights are being violated if they can’t run in 2019,” Mario Torrico, a Bolivia expert at Mexico City’s Latin American Institute of Social Sciences, told The Washington Times. “The argument is — I don’t find another word except ‘ridiculous.’”

Ruben Costas, the governor of Bolivia’s most populous state, and two of Mr. Morales’ predecessors were among those who decried the court’s ruling, calling on Bolivians to submit blank ballots in judicial elections scheduled Sunday in protest.

The Constitutional Court “has committed a coup against the rule of law … to endorse the indefinite reelection of Evo Morales,” they wrote in a joint statement.

In the capital of La Paz and major cities, frustrated Morales foes took to the streets for two straight days, at times clashing with police. Local media reported that at least three protesters were arrested Wednesday night after they reportedly tried to storm an electoral court in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s most populous city.

But criticism and unrest only seemed to embolden the Morales camp.

“The demonstrations rebuffing the constitutional qualification of President Evo Morales take orders from the interventionist trilogy of the United States, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro and opponents from the Bolivian right,” said Rene Martinez, Mr. Morales’ chief of staff, calling the State Department comments “an arrogant act of shameless meddling.”

The fury unleashed against Mr. Almagro, who had taken to Twitter to question the ruling, inadvertently fueled comparisons between the leftist Bolivian president and his embattled Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, whom the OAS chief calls a “dictator” but who remains one of Mr. Morales’ closest allies.

A longtime friend and admirer of Hugo Chavez, Mr. Maduro’s late predecessor, Mr. Morales has modeled his “People’s Sovereignty” movement after the Venezuelan firebrand’s “Bolivarian Revolution.” And, like his idol, Mr. Morales quickly gave his country a new name, the “Plurinational State of Bolivia,” and a new constitution.

Even his initial approach to altering the limits that document imposed on his powers mirrored Mr. Chavez: Seven years after Venezuelans had abolished presidential term limits in a referendum, Mr. Morales asked Bolivians to do the same.

But Bolivian voters last year refused to approve open-ended rule and shot down the proposed amendment by a slim, 2-point margin.

It was the first time Bolivia’s leftist leader lost a vote, Mr. Torrico noted, which is why this week’s attempt to overturn the popular will outlines a “before and after” for the 58-year-old former coca farmer.

“It’s a point of inflection that could mark a very likely transition toward an authoritarian regime, in which President Evo Morales is willing to do anything to stay in power,” he said. “The difference is that for the first time, the constitutional court and Morales himself go against what they always said legitimized their government: the popular mandate.”

With Venezuela convulsed by an often violent struggle for power, the already deep rifts between Mr. Morales’ rural backers and his urban foes leave Mr. Torrico pessimistic about Bolivia’s future.

“I foresee a lot of confrontation, a lot of protest and, certainly, repression on the part of the government,” he said. “There is nothing to negotiate at this point: Either [Morales] is allowed to run, or he isn’t.”

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