Luis Fernando Camacho kneels on the roof of the truck cabin and looks up at the statue of Christ. ‘God will rule in Bolivia! And Bolivia will belong to the Bolivians! ‘ The right-wing presidential candidate wears his white campaign cap casually backwards. His clenched fist bounces with every sentence. People are cheering and waving flags. “Viva Bolivia!”
Santa Cruz de la Sierra, tropical city in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia, is the bastion of ‘Macho’ Camacho, 41 years old, shaved head, stubble beard, conservative Christian. Also leader of the right-wing resistance against the man who sat in the presidential palace for fourteen years: the socialist Evo Morales. Here at the roundabout of ‘El Cristo’ the right-wing uprising took place a year ago, 21 days of connected protest against the native president. Until Morales left the country by plane, at the explicit request of the army.
The fight started in Santa Cruz and ends Sunday, October 18 in La Paz, Camacho promises. His thousands of supporters cheer, because this is their macho, the young guy who is the only one who can deal with the old politics. ‘Evo again? Fuck egg!‘they shout. ‘Again Evo? Ammehula! ‘ The aversion to socialism runs deep. “We are the engine of Bolivia,” say residents of Santa Cruz. Just look at soy cultivation, wood production, industry. Their region, they know, is generating more economic growth than any other part of Bolivia.
Tonight at the roundabout, the eight thousand covid deaths in the country of 11 million inhabitants have been forgotten. Euphoria brews in the crowd, mouth mask wearers are in the minority. Men and women with cargo bikes sell soft drinks and grilled meat. When after hours of waiting the Camacho campaign truck arrives, people crowd even closer together. Everyone wants to get a glimpse of the hero who sneaked into the presidential palace in La Paz on November 10 last year with a large Bible, just hours before Morales’ departure.
In Santa Cruz, many celebrated the president’s forced flight as a liberation. The end of the ‘dictatorship’, because that is what you can call a rule of fourteen years, according to Gloria Casanova (54). “We are an indigenous country,” she emphasizes. And it was good, she says, that the country elected an indigenous president in 2006. But then a second term followed, a third and an attempt at a fourth. More time limits than Morales’s own constitution allowed him. Over the years it went downhill, she says. “Corruption increased, crime, drug trafficking.”
Nineteen-year-old Luis Aguilera grew up under President Morales and is sure: “Socialism has never worked anywhere.” That is why on Sunday he will vote for the right-wing party Creemos, which means ‘we believe’. But the Camacho fans believe against the rocks, because in all voter surveys their candidate is in third place and does not exceed 15 percent. The polls promise a conflict between Luis Arce, candidate of Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) and center candidate Carlos Mesa.
At one time, before the Evo era, Mesa had been president of Bolivia for a short while, a post that came to him as vice president when the elected president resigned. In the controversial elections last October, he narrowly lost to Morales. He is a respected intellectual, not a man to mobilize large crowds. Mesa is especially not the MAS. According to the forecasts, it fluctuates around 33 percent, Acre would reach 42 percent according to the latest polls. If true, a second round will be required in mid-November.
The Camacho supporters in Santa Cruz thus face a dilemma: already vote against the MAS and strategically choose Mesa, or remain loyal to their husbands on Sunday and bet that the Socialists will not make it in the first round. But what do those polls say at all? ‘They have been bought’, says Ildu Ribera (42). “Mesa doesn’t get my vote,” says Marcela Ayala (55). “Where was he last year when we took to the street?” Their choice splashes in pink letters from their white flags, shirts and caps: they believe in Creemos.
A few hours earlier that same day, 500 miles to the west and at an altitude of more than 2.5 miles, the blue of the MAS and the checkered rainbow flag, the native Whipala, flew in the city of El Alto. Arce also mobilized many thousands of people for the conclusion of his campaign.
Among the mostly indigenous and left-wing inhabitants of El Alto, bordering the political capital La Paz, the anger over the departure of Evo Morales remains unabated a year later. His presidency meant emancipation for indigenous Bolivians who had been second-class citizens for centuries. Many fear a return to the past. The coup against their leader was followed by repression by President Jeanine Añez’s right-wing interim government. During protests in November, the army fired live ammunition and killed dozens of MAS supporters.
Ethnic and political tensions have been crackling through Bolivia for a year. Plateau and lowland look at each other with great suspicion. But the polarization goes beyond that dichotomy. Many others who do not feel at home (anymore) on the flanks and end up in the middle – also many indigenous Bolivians who lost faith in the MAS – also harbor great suspicion. Morales renamed Bolivia from a republic to a ‘plurinational state’: a colorful multitude of nations within one state, but now a deeply divided country.