By Marcelo Rochabrun and Daniel Ramos
Luis Arce, a quiet economist was sworn in as Bolivia’s president on Sunday after a landslide election win, knew where he stood in the political spectrum as a young teenager in La Paz, when he picked up the writings of philosopher Karl Marx.
Arce steered the Andean country’s economy for over a decade under former leader Evo Morales, an ebullient leftist who resigned last year after an election dogged by disputed claims of fraud sparked widespread protests. Arce was often seen as a moderating influence to more radical elements in Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party.
Arce, 57, will be inaugurated to the top job on Sunday amid bubbling political tensions that remain in the country and the impending return of Morales, who plans to cross back into the country early next week after living in exile in Argentina. ‘Evo’ still casts a long shadow over the country and sharply divides opinion.
On Friday Arce took part in an Andean ancestral ceremony. The influence and power of Bolivia’s large but previously marginalized indigenous population grew under Morales, an Aymara who was the country’s first indigenous leader.
Political leaders including Argentina’s Peronist President Alberto Fernandez, Paraguay’s Mario Abdo, Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani, Spain’s King Felipe, and Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodríguez are expected to attend Sunday’s ceremony.
“I have had my ideas since I was 14 years old and I started reading Karl Marx. Since then I have not stopped having the same ideological position and I am not going to change for anything,” Arce told Reuters in an interview in October.
Arce is credited by supporters as the architect of Bolivia’s growth “miracle” in the 2000s that lifted many out of poverty in one of South America’s most impoverished nations.
As economy minister, he pushed for the nationalization of many sectors, stoking ire among investors, but – helped in part by the commodities boom – steered Bolivia to an average annual growth rate of 4.6%, one of the best in Latin America.
Arce crafted the economic plan for Morales’ successful 2005 presidential run, which launched a near 14-year administration that sputtered towards the end as growth slowed and opposition grew to Morales seeking an unprecedented fourth term.
Unlike Morales, a former union head for coca farmers who became an almost cult figure, Arce grew up in a middle-class La Paz household and is known for being softly spoken and keeping a low personal profile.
He studied economics at Bolivia’s prestigious Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, and then at the University of Warwick in England.
“He is not really a ‘strong man’ sort of character,” said Franklin Pareja, a Bolivian political analyst in La Paz. “He is a person who comes from the academy, from the middle class, he’s a technocrat and not a social warrior or a union leader.”
That could help Arce heal angry divisions in the country. Many criticize Morales for trying to hold onto power and running in defiance of term limits, though he also retains a strong core of support.
Arce has taken steps to distance himself from Morales, telling Reuters the former president would have “no role” in his administration beyond his influence as leader of the party.
At the party headquarters there was little reference to Morales in pamphlets and posters on the walls when Reuters visited, though his planned return raises the question of whether he will be content to watch from the sidelines.
The country Arce inherits is markedly different from the boom years, with the coronavirus pandemic set to result in a 6% economic contraction this year, World Bank forecasts show. Even under Morales, gas exports and foreign reserves had started to dwindle.