Locals cheer Morales exit in ex-Bolivia leader's former fiefdom

Maria LORENTE
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A man walks past of a mural featuring ex-president Evo Morales in Achacachi, Bolivia

In the high Andes two hours' drive from La Paz, the people of Achacachi -- long a bastion of ex-president Evo Morales -- say they don't want him back.

The local government headquarters in the main square -- with its shattered windows -- have been abandoned since 2017. That's when mayor Edgar Ramos, a member of Morales' Movement For Socialism (MAS) party, was hounded out of office, accused of corruption.

The local police force and public prosecutors left soon afterwards, and the town of 46,000 situated on the harsh Bolivian Altiplano has been governed by local district committees since.

The mostly indigenous population remember all too well the violence that broke out in the town when the indigenous Aymara militia loyal to Morales, known as the Ponchos Rojos (Red Ponchos) flew to the defense of the embattled mayor.

Vehicles and homes were torched and businesses looted during the clashes that lasted several days, before 400 police were deployed to quell the disturbances.

"We don't want Evo to return. He's been very bad, he's done a lot of damage to the people," said a young indigenous woman who did not want to be identified.

"Now everyone's afraid to talk, so many things have happened. There was violence and looted stores and nobody wanted to listen to us."

The clashes long predate the violence that followed the October 20 elections, but show that in pockets around the country, and even in his own fiefdom, Morales's grip on power was slipping.

Post-election violence around the country left 33 people dead and hundreds wounded. Morales was forced to resign after losing the support of the army and fled to exile in Mexico, saying he had been overthrown in a coup.

- 'We were blinded' -

According to first results, Achacachi voted in favor of Morales. But locals like Marta Vega bluntly deny it.

"That's not true," said Vega. "It was fraud, we didn't vote for Evo."

Morales and his MAS party could always count on votes in Achacachi, but the party had lost ground here before the election.

When he first came to power in 2006, Morales -- a member of the Aymara indigenous community -- was enthroned "supreme leader of the Andean indigenous peoples" during a religious ceremony in the pre-Colombian ruins of Tiwanaku, near Lake Titicaca.

"The first time we thought that because he was indigenous he was going to do good things for us, but it wasn't like that," said one woman as she sold fruit and vegetables at a market in the city center. She didn't give her name because she said that in Achacachi "everyone knows each other."

"I've seen a lot of authoritarianism, a lot of corruption and if you said anything about it, they came looking for you."

- 'Evo helped us' -

Despite the lack of a central local authority, shops in the city are open, the banks function normally and restaurants offer trout from nearby Lake Titicaca.

Pamela Ramos, a 23-year-old student, is one of those who want Morales to return.

"Evo helped us with clean homes, work, assistance for the poor," she said.

But Materia Espinoza, 73, remembers "good things" Morales did, but said that was at the beginning of his 14-year rule.

"After that, there was a lot of corruption, a lot of division," she said.

She hasn't promised anyone her vote in the next election, expected once right-wing interim President Jeanine Anez names a date. But she is pleased that Morales has been banned from participating.

"In the past we were blinded, we were voting for a pound of sugar. But not anymore. If a new government comes in now and does things badly, we will throw them out, just like Mr Evo."