VILLAZON, Bolivia – Former President Evo Morales returned to Bolivia on Monday after a year in exile, receiving a hero’s welcome in this southern border city from a large crowd of adoring supporters.
Morales, who governed for 13 years and was the Andean nation’s first-ever indigenous head of state, was greeted by thousands of people in the small, tranquil border city of Villazon, many of whom had made their way there from different parts of the country.
The popular leftist leader’s triumphant return stands in sharp contrast to the way he exited the country on Nov. 11, 2019, when Morales fled by plane from a coca-growing area of the central department of Cochabamba and later was granted asylum in Mexico.
A month later, Morales moved on to Argentina.
Morales left his homeland amid accusations by the opposition that his apparent Oct. 20, 2019, first-round electoral victory (which would have given him a fourth term in office) was tainted by fraud.
Although he agreed to fresh elections after an Organization of American States audit found significant irregularities, the Bolivian leader was forced to step down after losing the support of the armed forces.
Morales vehemently denied any wrongdoing and said, as did supportive leaders in different parts of Latin America and beyond, that he had been driven out in a coup.
On Monday, he said the landslide win by his hand-picked successor, Luis Arce, and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party in last month’s presidential election – a re-run of the controversy-marred October 2019 balloting – proves that his own victory last year was clean.
“What fraud? On Oct. 18, the Bolivian people said there was no fraud. The best proof that there was no fraud were this year’s elections,” Morales told a large crowd gathered in Villazon’s main square.
He was accompanied to the border by Argentine President Alberto Fernandez, whose country offered the Bolivian leader asylum in December 2019.
Morales, who had vowed to return as soon as his MAS party was back in power, arrived in his homeland just a day after Arce (who served as economy minister under Morales in 2019) took the oath of office in La Paz.
Like a Roman emperor leading a victory parade after a successful war, Morales was swarmed by his supporters as he made his way through the streets of Villazon to its main square.
“The goal of the American empire was to eliminate, outlaw MAS. They said MAS couldn’t govern again and that Evo shouldn’t return to Bolivia. And now MAS is in government and Evo is in Bolivia. They failed, brothers. It’s the will of the Bolivian people, democratically,” Morales said.
The ex-president also used the occasion to celebrate the recent political events in the United States.
“We’ve now gotten rid of the gringo who ousted us in a coup,” Morales said, referring to President Donald Trump’s defeat at the hands of Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden.
Morales was accompanied on his return by his former vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, and other erstwhile officials who had sought exile in Argentina after his resignation and the arrival in power of interim President Jeanine Añez, whose administration targeted several of them with legal action.
The former president’s return from exile was expedited after a Bolivian judge annulled an arrest warrant for the ex-president for alleged terrorism and sedition, a ruling handed down one week after Arce’s victory. Those charges stemmed from an audio recording that allegedly showed that Morales had organized roadblocks in a bid to foment instability after his departure from the country.
Morales, however, waited until the transfer of power to cross the border.
While he could have traveled by plane from Buenos Aires to La Paz or Cochabamba and attracted massive crowds in those cities, the ex-president and his supporters came up with an alternate plan: a caravan that would traverse the country in a south-to-north direction, covering the regions where Morales’ support is strongest.
The caravan will initially consist of at least 800 vehicles, although that number is expected to grow along the multi-stop route.
Departing from Villazon, the caravan will travel on Monday through Atocha until arriving in Uyuni, near the famed Uyuni salt flats. On Tuesday, it will arrive in the hamlet of Orinoca, Morales’ birthplace in Bolivia’s altiplano region.
It will end on Wednesday in the coca-growing area of Chimore, Cochabamba, where Morales came to prominence as a union leader before charting his path to the presidency.
The dates are no accident.
Morales is scheduled to return to Chimore exactly one year after he secretly departed that town’s airport on a Mexican air force plane en route to the Aztec nation.
The ex-president, who spent 25 years in the public eye leading up to last year’s political crisis, now is planning to embark on a much more low-key existence.
He says he intends to settle once again in Chimore and resume his former work as a farmer of the coca leaf, which is the raw material of cocaine but can be cultivated in limited quantities for legal use in Andean religious rites and for medicinal purposes to counteract altitude sickness.