Protests soon after elections in Bolivia 2019
Protests soon after elections in Bolivia that culminated in the resignation of Evo Morales. Photo: Shutterstock

The General in His Labyrinth: Puebla Group and the resignation of Evo Morales

LABS columnist tells how it was to cover the summit of progressive leftist leaders of Latin America in a time of political tension in the region

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He had ” the melancholic certain that he would die in bed, poor and naked, and without consolation of public gratitude.” In this way, the last moments of Simón Bolívar were described by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, in the book The General in his labyrinth, published in the late 1980s.

These were the words that swirled in my head on the evening of last Sunday (10th) as I returned from a long journey covering the Puebla Group summit, made up of progressive leftist Latin American leaders in Buenos Aires, among the November 8th and 10th.

We spent the whole weekend in a kind of journalist’s nursery, where they overfed us with muffins and mini-sandwiches and liters of coffee in the adjoining room where presidents and former presidents talked about the new directions of Latin America.

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Among them (some attended the meeting every day, others only briefly) were newly elected Argentine President Alberto Fernández, former President Jose “Pepe” Mujica, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, the Brazilian Dilma Rousseff and the Paraguayan Fernando Lugo. There were also the former presidential candidates were Chilean Marco Enríquez-Ominami and Brazilian Fernando Haddad, as well as Daniel Martinez, who will run for the second presidency of Uruguay on November 24. Personalities such as the leader of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) Aloizio Mercadante and former Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, among others, also circulated and spoke at the event.

In the basement of the Emperador hotel (the Dome was a luxurious basement and, like every basement, lacked windows), which had become a stronghold of the Latin American left since Fernández’s victory on Avenida del Libertador in Buenos Aires, we were hours and hours hoping that some of them would bring us news of our patient: the South American continent. There were so many twists that sometimes we didn’t know which country to ask first.

I was trying to organize my thoughts: I started looking for answers to the social upheaval in Chile, accompanying a professional colleague who writes more frequently about those issues. We share moments of horror as we receive pictures of the injured themselves at the demonstrations. As objective as we were, it was not difficult to keep our eyes full of water with our cell phones flooded with sad reports, with no political side. Sometimes they were just passersby who ended up blinded by being in the wrong place and time. It was undermining our mood in that luxury basement.

We had, however, a great time of relaxation. With the mouths clogged with cupcakes, we ran down the corridor leading to the summit room, as the newly elected Argentine president Alberto Fernández arrived. I climbed into a chair to ask a question and was challenged by a grumpy journalist who said it was his seat, while other photographers, inside out, told us to lower the phone.

Another journalist and I almost shouted the same thing to Fernández: “One word, please, about Lula (the former Brazilian president who has just been released from prison) .” Our scream was so loud that he turned and just said “Libre” with the “L” gesture in his right hand

One journalist managed to sneak in and record the moment when our roaring cries are heard in the background, and, irony of fate, it was thanks to this boldness that the same photographers who harassed us got the image of the day. We ended the afternoon laughing at this trickery with beer glasses.

We were at the height of the celebration when rumors began to circulate that Bolivian President Evo Morales had boarded a plane with no right destination. It was the end of our party.

We improvised a small newsroom in the apartment I had rented in Buenos Aires. Cell phones were flooded with calls for help and terrifying videos from Bolivia.

I began to remember that in my second reading of The General in his labyrinth, I stopped reading the book because, after all, it was my vacation and the story caused me great anguish.

Marquez’s book deals with an unusual portrait of the “liberator” of the Americas. The general who had “liberated” part of the continent from colonizing Spain appears as a fragile, sick and often almost dead figure.

“Jose Palacios, his oldest servant, found him floating in the purifying waters of the bathtub, naked and with his eyes open, and thought he had drowned. I knew this was one of his many ways of meditating, but the state of ecstasy in which he drifted seemed like someone no longer from this world, ” says the book on page 11. Jose Palacios was the faithful steward who always accompanied Bolívar. Betrayed, isolated, Bolívar already had few supporters.

At 10 pm that Sunday, even tired, I couldn’t sleep in Buenos Aires. I wondered if Evo Morales was going to be lynched in Bolivia. I was not comparing, in my view, Bolívar to Evo Morales, but it was impossible to not think about the scenes described by the book in which Bolivar walked through some Colombian settlement and (I don’t remember quite well, I confess) someone spat or threw feces at him.

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It was just the same anguish the book gave me. Far from me comparing Evo Morales to Bolivar

But within my references lay this picture of decay. South America’s first indigenous leader was on the run. I remembered that when I was in Bolivia, where I crossed the border across the country to La Paz, I could clearly see the racial divide: colonizers and colonists.

This speaks neither good nor bad about Morales. However, I wondered if the insurgencies, which had been covering the continent for weeks, had not started back when the Europeans had risen by the sea and ended in the Americas. Now the same Jesuit bible appeared in the hands of Morales’ opponents to override local indigenous customs. I don’t know if I was hinted at by the time I had spent covering the Amazon fires, where I had noticed a certain unity in the indigenous claims.

I tend not to believe in coincidence. How can a continent with such different internal processes convulse almost all at once?

Evo Morales had, of course, stretched as far as democracy could go. A diversity of different internal processes makes Bolivia difficult to analyze. Meanwhile, I accompanied my fellow journalists passionately arguing over a semantic question: was it a coup d’état or not? Terminology divided the journalism and foreign policy of many countries.

What is certain is that Evo Morales has almost fully met the continent’s neoliberal agenda, even being praised by the World Monetary Fund (IMF). He was the only progressive leader in the region to attend the inauguration of the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. It had impeccable economic rates, one of the highest growth in the region, lower unemployment rates, etc. But he wanted to perpetuate himself in power, either with popular support or personal determination. In 2003, the country was experiencing a similar upheaval to what we see today and it was Evo Morales, with his flaws and qualities that, for many years, unified the country. Now the scenario was back in that chaotic moment more than a decade ago.

He was not the only general in the maze. In Latin America, all of a sudden, the lines of democracy have become more blurred and the way of exit more airtight. Many countries find leaders oscillating between tyranny and legitimacy. The question is whether the maze is a civilizing, political or economic struggle, and who is the general.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes