Evo Morales practices some sleights of hand while he envisions the future. He is aware that he might soon fall through the cracks: Nicolás Maduro is staggering and can only keep himself afloat thanks to his swinging military forces; Daniel Ortega, in Nicaragua, should repurpose his regime if he wants to avoid collapse in the near future. Only Cuba would stand by the Bolivian president.
Morales is conscious that his strength relies upon his alliance with residual Chavism and Castroism, and that being exposed would mean a severe blow to his plans for eternal rule. Who would support the flights from La Paz to Havana connecting in Caracas?
He bolted himself to the Bolivian chairmanship on January 22nd, 2006, and ever since then he has sworn no to move away. To that purpose he followed the Populist' Instructions Guide: he changed the Constitution (in 2009) and recasted a friendly superior justice body. Strictly friendly, of course. Tailor-made for him.
However, foreseeing that his tenure at the Palacio Quemado would reach an end sooner rather than later, he asked again his accommodative legislature to reform Article 168 of the Bolivian Constitution, so that he would be allowed to rule for new eras. "The term of office of the President and the Vicepresidente of the State is five years, and they can be re-elected once only on a continuous basis", reads the original text.
He did not stop there: he wanted two additional terms granted to he or she in office. Sleights of hand: he would be the graced one. And he got the legislative amendment, which had to be subjected to referendum. It was February 21st, 2016. For the first time, the Bolivian people would say "no". Nobody in the country approved of Evo being perpetuated.
But, once again, the ever-timely, only-friendly justice smiled on his president. On December 5th, the Supreme Electoral Court of Bolivia (TSE) reinterpreted the Political Constitution of the State in its reformed Article 168 —disregarding the will of the people— and gave Morales free rein to enter again the voting battlefield. In their ruling, the judges just fell short of wishing good luck to the man in office.
"I don't want to, but I cannot disappoint my people", said Evo once he had judicial authorization to a third reelection. Nobody could decipher if it was a cynical irony from the president.
However, a month later the scene in La Paz had fully changed. Since Juan Guaidó was proclaimed president in charge of Venezuela and the United States had imposed sanctions on PDVSA and dozens of officials of the Maduro regime, alarm bells set off in Bolivia.
It is plain to see that loyalty around Maduro is increasingly fragile; that the world has isolated the dictator, and that, adding to the social and economic collapse, last week an energy crisis left almost all the country in darkness. The permanence of Hugo Chávez's heir in Miraflores might have just hours to live. Russian, Chinese and Cuban interferences would reach a limit. One is centered in the oil —which Russia disputes Beijing—, and the island will let go off Caracas were Moscow to order it. Post-Soviet leftovers.
More so in the last hours, since a Russian bank —the Evrofinance Mosnarbank— has been similarly hit by the US Treasury Department for trying to circumvent the notices against the Maduro dictatorship. Could Washington DC impose corrective measures to Morales and his ministers? That question is increasingly posed, in a low voice, at the Palacio Quemado.
Open Skies Policy
During his tenure starting in 2006, Morales engaged in the construction of a network of flights that connected La Paz and La Habana via Caracas, according to statements made by former military officers who were part of the circuit. This was revealed by the Brazilian journalist Leonardo Coutinho in his book Hugo Chávez, the Specter.
In the chapter The cocaine airlift, Coutinho recounts the workings of the routes among the Latin American capital cities, where the white drug was transported in diplomatic pouch.
The Brazilian writer and researcher based in Washington DC starkly exemplified it: he referred to a guiding thread among the tragedy of Chapecoense, on November 28th, 2016; the suspicious death of a general, German Valenzuela, hours after an imprudent act of bravery in front of Morales, at a rally with comrades; and the La Paz-Caracas-Havana triangle.
The Brazilian soccer team's misfortune began to unmask a dirty plot revealed by the owners of LaMia, the airline company whose Avro RJ85 airplane crashed in Medellin, Colombia, leaving 71 fatal casualties. One of the business owners, Miguel Alejandro Quiroga Murakami, flew the aircraft. He died in the accident, but he had testified earlier about what he had seen.
The other owner, Marco Antonio Rocha, was in Spain at the moment. Knowing that he would not receive assistance from the Bolivian government, he decided to go into exile, along with his family, to the United States.
Rocha —a former major of the Bolivian Air Force— started to talk. It was the right assumption: he suspected that this was his only way out in order to avoid a possible extradition request. Those were moments when Morales sought to detach himself from the tragedy that left world soccer grief-stricken. Rocha offered his statement to the DEA in Florida and Washington DC. He said that during his service as a military pilot he had been summoned to perform flights connecting La Paz, Caracas and Havana; that said flights were not open to ordinary passengers but only to Venezuelan, Bolivian, Cuban, and even Iranian officials to be transported.
Such singular passengers traveled with peace of mind. With immunity. Their luggage was protected and would not be inspected by custom agents. The diplomatic pouch —according to Coutinho— flew mostly from Venezuela to Cuba. Each of the trips carried an estimated load of between 1,100 and 1,700 pounds. The transfer to and from the plane to the final destination was responsibility of the Chávez/Maduro and Castro military personnel.
Prior to that, that spacial tour was covered by Venezuelan aircrafts. But an incident in 2007 forced them to reconsider the strategy. No one would suspect of a Bolivian military aircraft departing from a base near the capital of the country. Staff, transportation and logistics would be in charge of local authorities. Both financing and orders would come from Venezuela.
The mysterious route was traveled 91 times between 2009 and 2014, according to information provided by the Brazilian government. Had the cargo ballast been the same (1,100 pounds), a total of 50 tons would have been transported from Caracas to Havana in airplanes of Evo Morales' Air Force. Before his death, former Bolivian senator exiled in Brazil Roger Pinto Molina said that his son-in-law, Murakami, had revealed that he had been able to verify that the Bolivian jets carried cocaine and that in exchange Cuba returned cargoes of weapons and ammunition for Venezuela. Rocha said the same to the DEA agents. He described this orgy of flights, drugs, money and weapons, expecting that more evidence could be gathered.
Solitude can be such a lousy companion
Morales has the intuition that his time may come. But he also knows that he can't momentarily get away from Maduro and Cuba and just be destitute, with no friends to turn to. And he is not the only one deeply committed to those shady business with Venezuela: he implicated his own military men —many of them happy to oblige— by order of Chávez, first, and then Maduro.
That is why in recent days he condemned the United States and its "interventionist sanctions" against Venezuela and its officials. He even risked saying that the massive blackout in the allied country was just but a "cowardly terrorist attack". Evo offered no further evidence than his own imagination.
Only the economy gives him a break. The numbers are strong, although a red light remains lit. International reserves fall day after day. Last year, according to official information provided by the Central Bank of Bolivia, "Net Internacional Reserves (NIR) reached USD 8,946.3 millions (last day of 2018), a reduction of USD 1,314.4 millions compared to 31 December 2017″.
In 2014, barely four years ago, reserves had reached a historic high: USD 15,122 millions. Since then the hemorrhage has been constant and the monetary authorities have failed to contain it. How can Morales reverse the trend if he begins to isolate himself as a result of his solitude in the region? Could PDVSA Bolivia drag along a financial institution?
With that in mind, Morales plays domestic politics keeping an eye in what goes on in Venezuela. If he could, he would wind the clock forward to election day: it would give him some reassurance. But the vote is not close: it will be held in October. In the meantime, he practices more of his tricks: he depicts Carlos Mesa —the opposition candidate, former president and forced opponent— as a rival who could snatch his throne. Even a poll shows they are in a tight race for the votes. The pollsters should consider to what extent they are willing to risk their professional reputation.
Those who elaborate a more critical interpretation of those numbers know that they are all about an alchemy to validate the fraudulent maneuver that Morales is making to perpetuate himself in office. A hold on to power that, he fears, might be slipping away, given this historical momentum.
MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR (in Spanish)