VILLAZON, Bolivia (Reuters) – Bolivia’s former leader Evo Morales made a dramatic homecoming on Monday, greeted by crowds of cheering supporters as he crossed the border from Argentina where he had been living in exile since late last year.
Morales, seen off by Argentine President Alberto Fernandez, who hugged him goodbye, made his return after his socialist MAS party swept back into power a year after he resigned amid violent protests and fled the country.
The leftist ex-president, an indigenous former coca farmer who led Bolivia for nearly 14 years, departed under a cloud in November 2019 after he ran for an unprecedented fourth term in an election marred by allegations of fraud.
In October, after an 11-month caretaker government, his former economy minister Luis Arce won a landslide election, paving the way for Morales to return home. His arrival in Bolivia adds spice to an already tense political environment as the new socialist-controlled congress seeks to flex its muscles amid vehement opposition protests.
At the border town of Villazon, thousands of flag-waving supporters chanting ‘Evo’ welcomed Morales home.
But the role he will play remains unclear.
Arce, who was sworn in on Sunday, has said Morales will play no role in his government. But he remains the head of the MAS and is likely to continue to hold considerable sway in the party.
Jim Shultz, American head of the Democracy Center think tank and a long-time resident of Bolivia, said Arce’s election marked a return to “full democracy” after the “twin crises” of Morales ignoring a referendum result which opposed his running for a fourth team and the right-wing caretaker government of Jeanine Anez that ended on Sunday.
“The new MAS government has a clear mandate to govern,” he said. “Probably the most important thing that Evo can do is get out of the way and let them do that, without interference.”
Morales told the crowds in Villazon that last month’s election, in which Arce won 55% of the vote, was proof that his own victory in the 2019 disputed election had also been valid.
He repeated claims that he had been the victim of a “coup” backed by the United States because of his policies of nationalizing Bolivia’s natural resources and rejection of capitalism. The Organization of American States found that last year’s election had “clear manipulations” of the voting system that called into question Morales’ win.
“Now we have recovered democracy and the homeland without violence,” Morales said on Monday.
“Yesterday MAS returned to government, today Evo is in Bolivia. They failed and that is thanks to the unity of the Bolivian people.”
After crossing the border on Monday morning, Morales took part in an indigenous cleansing ceremony in a tent before addressing the crowds. He later headed in a convoy, accompanied by supporters and aides, towards his rural stronghold in Chapare, where he has said he will help coordinate social movements. Arce, who is due to unveil his new cabinet on Monday, has not yet commented on his predecessor’s return.
At the La Quiaca border post in Argentina, President Fernandez said the electoral turmoil in Bolivia reminded all Latin Americans about the need for regional solidarity.
“We are part of a large nation,” he said. “It is the duty of all of us to stand up for threatened peoples.”
Arce, feted as the architect of Bolivia’s rapid growth under Morales, has vowed to “defeat” the coronavirus pandemic, “put an end to fear” after last year’s deadly electoral violence, and generate growth following the blow dealt by COVID-19 lockdowns.
(Reporting by Ueslei Marcelino in Villazon, Daniel Ramos in La Paz, and Miguel Lobianco in La Quiaca; Writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Rosalba O’Brien)