Jamie Dean reports for World Magazine:
As a new election approaches, Bolivia’s Morales may be seeking to become another South American president for life
Each morning in the Bolivian city of La Paz, thousands of young men pull ski masks over their faces and baseball caps over their heads, as they wait for scores of pedestrians to spill into the bustling streets.
The sight might be startling outside of La Paz, but in the South American city perched high in the Andes Mountains, it’s a normal part of the morning commute: The masked men aren’t waiting to rob pedestrians; they’re waiting to shine their shoes.
Shoe-shining is a common profession, but in La Paz it carries a shameful stigma. Even in a region with one of the highest poverty rates in South America, the lustrabotas in La Paz say they’re often disdained for what others consider a low profession.
Randy Davis, an SIM missionary working with the shoe shiner community in La Paz, has experienced the disdain firsthand. When he hails a taxi on a normal day, drivers flock to pick him up. After a day in a mask accompanying his friends to their jobs, he says, “I can’t get anyone to stop for me.”
Many want to remain hidden. A husband might moonlight in a mask before he tells his family he can’t make ends meet. A college student from a poor neighborhood might don a mask to supplement tuition outside the school he attends.
Others shine shoes in 12-hour shifts as their sole source of income. Shiners might earn $3 to $15 a day. (Davis says $15 would be “a golden day.”) If business is good, they’re likely able to feed their families a couple of meals each day. If it rains, Davis says, “they’re sunk.”
Davis tells his friends there’s no shame in their hard work. And while he says some do give in to drugs and theft, that stigma often isn’t true either: “A lot of them are very interested in making their lives better.”
How to make life better is a hot topic in Bolivia.
The country faces an election on Oct. 20 that will decide whether President Evo Morales—just past his 13th year on the job—will stay in office. Despite real economic gains under Morales’ leadership, poverty persists, and some wonder how long the gains will last.
Other Bolivians wonder if another Morales term could morph into a lifetime post for the socialist leader with an authoritarian streak. Is short-term economic gain worth an unknown future with a leader cozy with countries like Venezuela and Cuba?
The dilemma is a microcosm of a scenario unfolding all over South America. While some Latin American countries have strained left in recent years, others have pulled right. The results have been mixed (and sometimes disastrous), but they’ve left the continent in an ideological tug-of-war, with some countries switching sides midway through the struggle.
The toggling has also produced another dilemma: A growing number of evangelical Christians are musing over which way to pull.
WHEN IT COMES TO TUGGING the political rope in Bolivia, evangelicals typically haven’t had the strongest pull.
For more than a century, Roman Catholicism was the official state religion, and evangelical growth remained small. But as evangelicalism boomed in other Latin American nations in the 1980s, particularly among Pentecostals, it mushroomed in Bolivia too: Protestants grew from less than 8 percent of the population in 1985 to an estimated 17 percent today.
Still, growth didn’t equal recognition. Three years after Morales won his first election and took office in 2006, he successfully pushed for a new constitution declaring Bolivia a secular state. That sounded like good news to some evangelicals, but in 2013 another law required churches to reregister with the state and report information like membership rolls and financial details.
It also required religious organizations to promote “living well”—a concept in the indigenous Aymaran religion. (Morales is an ethnic Aymaran, but he also claims Catholicism.) Evangelical churches protested the law, and tensions with Morales grew.
Last year, those tensions deepened as a new law threatened imprisonment for anyone who “recruits” another person to participate in an armed conflict—or a religious organization. For Christians, that sounded like criminalizing evangelism. This time, an outcry from evangelicals bore fruit, and Morales instructed the country’s legislature to revoke the new law.
Earlier this year, Morales pushed through another measure that officially recognized the legality of evangelical churches. The president said the new law puts all churches and religious groups on equal ground. Many evangelicals were pleased with the new legislation. But given the history, some remain wary of what Morales might do in the future.
One of the evangelicals most wary of Morales has become one of his most unlikely opponents in the upcoming contest: Chi Hyun Chung—a Korean Bolivian and medical doctor who has never run for a political office.
Chi moved to Bolivia with his family when he was 12 years old. (His parents were missionaries from the Presbyterian Church of Korea.) He finished medical school in Bolivia, became a surgeon, and helps with the work at the Christian University of Bolivia—a school his family founded. He also serves as chairman for the Presbyterian Church in Bolivia, a network of 70 churches in the country.
During a late-night phone call after a long day on the campaign trail, Chi explained why he decided to run for president when the candidate from his political party withdrew from the race in June: As he contemplated Morales approaching a fourth term, “I had to do something about it.”
Voters had already tried to do something about it.
In a 2016 referendum, a majority of voters said Morales should not be able to seek a fourth term: The constitution limits officeholders to two consecutive terms. Morales argued that it violated his human rights to deny him another run for office. A constitutional court—packed by his appointees—agreed. They scrapped the term limits.
That might be enough to alarm South Americans living in a region where dictators have sought to hold on to power for life, but Morales has also offered something Bolivians have embraced: economic growth. While the country still has a high rate of poverty, the number has decreased in recent years. (Indeed, some of the shoe shiners have gone on to find better jobs in La Paz.)
Still, Chi thinks the growth will stagnate without a more robust commitment to free markets, and he worries Morales is moving the nation toward communism. Though Morales has allowed more freedom in markets than the failed state of Venezuela, he’s often made his sympathies bracingly clear. When Pope Francis visited Bolivia in 2015, Morales presented the pontiff with an unusual gift: a crucifix mounted on a hammer and sickle.
That wasn’t comforting to some religious Bolivians, and Chi worries that evangelicals could face more scrutiny from the government in the years ahead, particularly on social issues.
Chi, a latecomer to the contest, is near the bottom of the polls, but a recent poll showed even Morales’ nearest opponent, Carlos Mesa, trailing him. If that’s accurate, it’s possible Morales could win the October contest outright, without being forced into a second round of voting, and continue to pull the rope leftward—perhaps indefinitely.
But while voters are eyeing the political scene, many are also focused on making a simple living. Randy Davis, the SIM missionary in La Paz, is working to help start a church among the shoe shiners he knows in the city. He’s cultivated relationships with many of them over the years, sometimes packing 30 people into a small house to study the Scriptures. He’s now partnering with the Christian group City to City to begin training a small team for a church planting effort.
Whatever the political landscape, the need for good churches in a culture of syncretism will continue. And while politicians scramble for high positions, Davis says his dream isn’t to spearhead a new church himself—he wants humble leaders from the shoe shine communities to do it: “My real desire is for them to have the vision.”