CHIMORE, Bolivia – Evo Morales abruptly departed Bolivia precisely one year ago from this small town in the central region where he first gained prominence as leader of a coca growers’ union, heading for Mexico a day after losing the support of the armed forces and resigning as president.
But the Andean nation’s first indigenous head of state pledged then that he would return and that “millions” would accompany him, a vision that became a reality when a sea of supporters greeted him as a hero on Wednesday at the airport in Chimore.
The contrast between Wednesday’s events and those of Nov. 11, 2019, was striking.
Whereas one year ago Morales was surrounded by the long faces of a handful of his closest allies before boarding a Mexican air force plane that took him to the Aztec nation, he returned to a party-like atmosphere and the sound of thousands upon thousands of people chanting his name.
“I’ll be back and I’ll be millions,” the just-deposed leader said last year, echoing a phrase supposedly uttered by 18th-century indigenous leader Tupac Katari before he was executed by quartering for leading an uprising against the Spanish colonial authorities in what is now Bolivia.
An estimated 100,000 people began waiting at dawn on Wednesday and stood patiently for hours during alternating periods of sunshine and light rain, although shortly before Morales’ arrival they broke through a security cordon and took up positions closer to the stage.
“We’re now millions!” one of the hosts of the event proclaimed in both Spanish and Quechua, an indigenous language spoken in that part of Bolivia. “For us, he’ll always be our president. For life.”
“Brother Evo, welcome to your country,” read one of the many signs held up by Morales’ supporters, who also waved the blue flags of the ex-president’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, Bolivia’s tri-colored flag and the native peoples’ multi-colored Wiphala emblem.
An explosion of joy then ensued when the 61-year-old MAS leader eventually arrived in a helicopter that briefly hovered over the crowd.
“We’re now millions!” Morales said during his speech to the adoring throng of supporters while waving a Wiphala flag adorned with flowers and coca leaves
The leftist leader, who ruled Bolivia from 2006 until late last year, said he never abandoned his supporters even though he spent a year in exile, most of that time in neighboring Argentina.
He also called for a round of applause for the new president of Bolivia – Morales’ former economy minister, Luis Arce – who won a landslide victory last month and whose inauguration on Sunday triggered his mentor’s return.
The election was a re-run of the twice-postponed presidential balloting of October 2019, when the opposition refused to accept Morales’ apparent narrow first-round victory because of alleged fraud in the vote count.
Although the leftist leader agreed to fresh elections after an Organization of American States audit found significant irregularities, he was forced to step down once he lost the support of the armed forces amid widespread protests.
Morales vehemently denied any wrongdoing and said, as did supportive leaders in different Latin American countries and beyond, that he had been driven out in a coup.
In remarks while in exile – and reiterated at a press conference following his return to Bolivia – Morales said that he was forced from office because the United States government refused to accept his government’s control over the nation’s vast reserves of lithium, a key component in the rechargeable batteries that power cellphones, laptop computers and electric vehicles.
His appearance on Wednesday in Chimore brought an end to a three-day 800-vehicle “caravan” that began in the southern border city of Villazon, where he arrived on foot on Monday from Argentina.
Chimore is located in the heart of Bolivia’s coca-growing region, where Morales spent years as the leader of the union for farmers of that traditional crop in Chapare, a rural province in the central department of Cochabamba.
In 1997, he began his career in national politics when he was elected as a lower-house lawmaker representing Chapare.
The ex-president, who spent a quarter-century 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.