Bolivia: leaders' political ambitions lead to country's collapse


Evo Morales

Splits and fragmentation within the ruling El Movimiento al Socialismo party have paralyzed Bolivia’s government, divided the population and, for the first time in nearly 20 years, given the pro-American opposition a chance to breathe in the smells of real power

Every Sunday, Evo Morales, former president of Bolivia, takes to the airwaves with his program «Evo — Leader of the Oppressed» on Kawsachun Coca Radio. «I made the mistake of appointing Lucho (Luis Arce, President of Bolivia) as president. Lucho wants to reform the party, to make it right-wing», he said in a recent program.

In response, Luis Arce admitted that Morales has become his main rival because the latter seeks to «bring the country down» out of «personal power ambitions». “The people know that this political instrument (the party) cannot remain in the hands of one person, but is part of the entire Bolivian people organized in their social organizations”, Arce said and expelled Morales supporters from his cabinet and parliament.

Together, Morales and Arce, at the head of the El Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party, accomplished Bolivia’s «economic miracle» during the region’s commodities boom in the 2000s and early 2010s, reducing poverty and quadrupling the country’s GDP.

Initially, Morales and Arce seemed to have a symbiotic relationship. Arce, a middle-class, British-educated technocrat economist, provided competent economic management. Morales used his charisma to mobilize the population around the MAS party. And together they led the party and the country to victory…

In terms of ideology, there are still few differences between the two leaders. Both reject free-market policies and seek to increase the role of the state in the economy and to use Bolivia’s natural resources to fund social programs. Hydrocarbons and lithium are considered strategic sectors, and telecommunications infrastructure has only recently been added to the list.

Overall, the current government continues to follow the strategic priorities of the Economic and Social Development Plan (2021–2025). These include two main long-term policy objectives: 1) transforming the country’s economic structure, particularly by promoting value-added activities (industrialization), and 2) improving the welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable (redistribution and poverty reduction).

In the international arena, their stance is anti-imperialist, anti-American. Bolivia has withdrawn from trade negotiations with the United States (both presidents have significantly reduced the influence of the U.S. government and international financial institutions) and the European Union. La Paz tends to be more involved on the side of the Global South, particularly in alliances with Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and counts on the financial and political support of China, Russia and Iran.

But the «days of harmony and fraternity» are long gone. Arce, upon becoming president, sought to distance himself from the radicalism of Morales, who became known for his alliance with coca growers and indigenous villagers. Today, the two leaders are fighting each other for control of MAS and for their own nomination in the October 2025 presidential election — a bitter and purely personal “battle” that is dealing a tangible blow to the leftist movement and Bolivia’s economic stability.

Today, it is difficult to say who will prevail: Arce or Morales. Morales controls the structure and political direction of MAS as party leader, and has the support of his former ministers, who, however, have no positions in the current government. He has a strong base among rural labor unions, primarily among coca growers, whose federation he heads.

As a result, Bolivia’s ruling Movement Toward Socialism party, which has ruled for almost two decades, has effectively split into two wings, Arce (from Arcista) and Evista (from Evo). And on each «wing» there were communists, socialists, trade unionists, indigenous activists, cocalero (coca growers) movements, and intellectuals of both leftist and centrist.

The possibility of reconciliation, for example at a national party congress, failed: both Arce and Morales defended each one’s truth and denied the legitimacy of the other.

At the 10th congress of the «Movement Toward Socialism» in October 2023 in Lauca, Cochabamba, where Morales began his journey as a politician, delegates of the Evista wing «approved Commander Evo Morales as president of the party and its presidential candidate for the 2025 elections». The congress decided to «self-exile» Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca, the country’s president and vice president, from the party and invited Arce to run for another party.

The congress’ decisions were not upheld by Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, controlled by Luis Arce supporters, and Morales was forced to postpone his congress until July this year.

The 10th congress of the MAS wing of Arcista adopted a new political statute that «will not benefit any one person alone», expelled Evo Morales from the MAS national directorate, and expressed «unanimous support for the government of the brother-president (Luis Arce) democratically chosen in elections».

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal upheld the credentials of the Arcistas’ congress, giving President Arce’s wing an obvious control over the party apparatus.

It may well come down to the two leaders running from different parties. Which would reduce MAS’s ability to monopolize the lead in the elections. But even if this does not happen, both friendly and hostile analysts point out, the winner may be too discredited to ensure the party a majority.

That was the main reason cited by pollsters last September, when Arce’s approval ratings were approaching 50 percent and Morales’ were under 30 percent. Today, support has plummeted for both candidates, virtually leveling off.

The split, it can be assumed, has taken place. This makes governing the country more difficult, with squabbles in the media, riots in parliament and on the street.

Morales is not only warning of «upheaval» in Bolivia if he is disqualified. In January, thousands of his protesting supporters abandoned their farms in coca-growing areas, blocked highways with rocks and clashed with police. In February, miners had already blocked roads along the country’s southern highways for two weeks, paralyzing road freight traffic, resulting in restricted supplies of food, fuel and goods. Neighboring countries including Argentina, Peru, Chile and Brazil have also felt the side effects. But the anti-government protests didn’t stop there.

The struggle has undermined the Arce government’s strength and limited its response to the economic crisis caused by the depletion of foreign exchange reserves. Bolivia’s central bank ended last year with reserves of just $1.7 billion (they totaled $15.5 billion in 2014). Economic analysts attribute this to a decline in natural gas production. The question is whether the country will be able to maintain fuel subsidies and social programs that have kept poverty and inflation low. And the country has to make interest-only payments of $110 million in 2024 and 2025 on its bonds maturing in 2028 and 2030.

So far, the only real solution to the socioeconomic crisis may be the lithium sector. Last year, the administration of President Luis Arce agreed with Chinese and Russian companies to implement direct lithium extraction technology in two salt ponds with a total investment of 1.4 billion dollars. Through these agreements, the Arce administration aims to produce about 100,000 tons of lithium carbonate by 2025. At the same time, Bolivia announced that it would seek full inclusion in BRICS, with a willingness to offer partners access to its natural resources, particularly lithium, whose reserves are estimated at 21 million tons.

 However, there is less and less time for the government to solve, and for the opposition to exacerbate, domestic problems. The split and fragmentation within MAS suggests that the Movement will go into the 2025 elections weakened. The conservative opposition, long unable to challenge MAS in the general election, may seep into this vortex.

And while Morales and Arce are busy settling scores, the threat to Bolivia’s dominant left is becoming real: elites well entrenched even under Socialist rule, with deep ties to conservative and right-wing parties in their own country, in neighboring countries, and, of course, in the United States, are entering the political scene.

While Washington, busy with the «Venezuelan problem», is not interfering, it is watching the developments in Bolivia and, according to insiders, is “casting” right-wing politicians, preferably from the indigenous population (which is not easy at all), capable of «changing the course of history».

The opposition smells a favorable opportunity. Carlos Mesa, former president (2003–2005), may well run again from the centrist coalition Comunidad Ciudadana. Luis Fernando Camacho, who is in pre-trial detention on charges of participating in the 2019 «coup d’état», may also try to run from the right-wing Creemos party. Other conservatives are also ready to join the race and are calling for a united opposition. None of them seem to be inspiring voters so far.

However, the longer the standoff between Morales and Arce continues, the more it benefits the conservative opposition. The idea of MAS’s two leading political figures hurt each other politically and possibly splitting the ruling party vote is an extremely attractive prospect for Bolivia’s right-wing. And for the United States, which, without overt intervention, will have a chance to change the political structure in yet another Andean country in its favor.

One of the possible scenarios, according to local analysts, could be not two, but a three-way struggle for the state Olympus — between the two socialists Morales and Arce, and an as yet unknown conservative.

Either scenario is expected to change the country’s political scene: after nearly two decades of MAS governing alone, Bolivia could return to a more complex pattern of coalition government.

There is also the possibility of a more dangerous destabilization — an open anti-government uprising led by Morales and even military intervention to «restore order».

Let me remind you that there have been almost 200 coups d’état in Bolivia during its 200-year history of independence. The experience of the right-wing and the gringos who support them is, as we can see, centuries old.

The consequences of the feud between Arce and Morales will be terrible for the Bolivian Left and for the South American Left in general.