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.”
Left and right down south
Venezuela is showing what could be in store for a Bolivia that moves to the far left.
At least 4 million people have fled Venezuela since the socialist nation began collapsing in 2014. That number could exceed 8 million by the end of next year, according to the Brookings Institution. That would represent a quarter of the population of a nation once the richest country in Latin America.