In Mexico we're divided over Evo Morales — but giving him asylum was a necessary evil

Mexico has a tradition of offering political asylum, and doing so can help a country in the region to move on from chaos and controversy

Carli Pierson
Mexico City
Wednesday 13 November 2019 16:18 GMT
Bolivia police join protesters marching to demand free and fair elections

Former Bolivian president Evo Morales arrived yesterday in Mexico City after fleeing the country in what he called a “political coup-d’etat”. Mexico’s secretary of external relations, Marcelo Ebrard, warmly embraced what some call a former dictator as he stepped off the Mexican government plane that brought him from La Paz.

Three people have died and hundreds have been injured since Bolivians began heavily protesting on October 20th, when Morales claimed he won a fourth term as president (after nearly 14 years in office), and after an election that the Organization of American States said was manipulated. On November 7th, a mayor in a small Bolivian town and a member of the ruling Más party was dragged through the streets barefoot, her hair cut off and her body painted red. Morales announced his resignation on Sunday, November 10th.

Mexico’s socialist government announced it would offer Morales asylum after he was denied by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru. The move divided opinions in the country: critics worried that Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) might follow in Morales’ footsteps and try to amend the constitution to allow for multiple presidential terms, while others agreed with the federal government’s choice to provide refuge for Morales and signaled Mexico’s history of offering asylum to political leaders.

Since Monday, the hashtags #AMLOtraidorMX (AMLO traitor Mexico) and #EvoMiCasaEsTuCasa (Evo my house is your house) have been dueling on Twitter.

As Mexican political commentator and prolific writer Esteban Illades explained to me, “Mexico's political asylum offer to Evo Morales is one of [Andres Manuel] López Obrador's few good decisions during his first year as president. Although the opposition is furious at the fact that someone who they perceive as a dictator has received asylum, in reality AMLO's offer carries on a forgotten tradition in this country: no matter your ideology, this country will welcome you if you are persecuted for it.”

Meanwhile in Bolivia, many in the opposition celebrated Morales’s resignation and departure. Others, however, were angry that the former president escaped and, with a grant of amnesty in Mexico, will avoid facing justice in a Bolivian court for alleged election fraud, among other potential crimes.

But it’s more complicated than a simple dichotomy of impunity versus justice. The Bolivian and Mexican governments must make a weighted consideration of the nature of Morales’s crimes and the best interests of Bolivia’s democracy going forward.

It’s true that Mexico has a tradition of offering political asylum, and political asylum for controversial political leaders is one of many transitional justice mechanisms that can serve to help a country and its people move on without a polarizing figure in its midst. Offering asylum to former heads of state and high-ranking government officials is a way to avoid violence and even civil war when, by relying on traditional justice mechanisms such as incarceration and a criminal trial, a country runs the risk of remaining heavily divided and chaotic.

Daniela Malpica, a Mexican legal scholar and expert in transitional justice, said to me of Mexico’s decision that “even though Evo’s exit could be controversial, as he manipulated the referendum and the elections in his own country to try and stay in power, he didn’t commit a crime against humanity, a war crime, or any other grave human rights violation.”

Nearly one hundred dictators have gone into political exile since the Second World War and we’ve learned a lot from those countries’ experiences. We’ve learned that, yes, there will be a feeling of a lack of closure for many Bolivians. And, yes, it may be true that another allegedly corrupt politician got away without having to face a trial. And, yes, it may be impunity.

But the question that international law seeks to ask is: What decision best preserves the interests of Bolivia as a democracy? Is it better for ordinary Bolivians that Morales stays in Bolivia and continues to incite controversy from a cell block in La Paz? Or, is it better for him to leave the country with minimal bloodshed in his wake and allow Bolivia’s people and its democratic institutions to move forward in transparency and peace?

Certainly future Bolivian heads of state have been put on notice that, no matter how much you are loved in the beginning, if you stay too long you will end up unwelcome and even in danger.

So, if giving Morales asylum saved lives in Bolivia, then it’s a necessary evil that the world of international law anticipated and prepared for – it’s what the mechanism of political asylum is intended for.

Morales is in Mexico – now it’s time to let Bolivians and Bolivia move on to a better, fairer future.

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