Sex, lies and paternity claims: Bolivia’s president reels amid tumultuous scandal

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That Evo Morales lost a bid for a fourth term in February is today the least of his problems, as his government stands accused of targeting press freedom over coverage of the spiralling saga of a child fathered with an ex-girlfriend

A real-life telenovela of sex, lies and paternity claims has gripped Bolivia, putting unprecedented pressure on one of Latin Americas most consistently popular leaders and prompting warnings that press freedom in the country is under threat.

When Evo Morales, the countrys first indigenous president, celebrated 10 years in office in January he appeared to be at the height of his power: under his rule, Bolivia had seen unprecedented economic growth, dramatic drops in poverty and inequality, and indigenous rights enshrined in the constitution.

A month later, however, Morales narrowly lost his bid for a fourth re-election in February in a referendum which was largely overshadowed by the revelation that his former girlfriend, Gabriela Zapata, had helped secure $500m in government contracts for the Chinese engineering firm which employed her.

Since then, the scandal has taken a series of dramatic turns, culminating this week in warnings that journalists have been threatened with arrest for investigating the tawdry saga.

After the initial reports of the presidents relationship with Zapata, Morales, 56, admitted he had fathered a son with her in 2007, but said the child had died soon afterwards.

Morales denied any wrongdoing and called for an investigation. Soon afterwards, Zapata, 29, was arrested for alleged influence-peddling, illicit enrichment and money-laundering.

Gabriela Zapata sits at a police station in La Paz after she was detained by police in February as part of an investigation into alleged corruption. Photograph: David Mercado/Reuters

Then a woman claiming to be Zapatas aunt came forward with the claim that Moraless son was alive and well. Speaking to reporters from jail, Zapata confirmed the incredible story.

Earlier this month, however, Bolivias attorney general, Ramiro Guerrero, told reporters that there was no living child and said that Zapata had paid $5,000 and promised a private education to the parents of an unrelated five-year-old boy in order to hire him to pretend to be Morales son.

The parents have been arrested, while others alleged to have helped Zapata put together the charade including former lawyers and figures linked to the political opposition have either been detained or fled the country.

The Bolivian government was swift to blame Moraless defeat in Februarys referendum on a conspiracy mounted by the opposition and the US embassy, and has portrayed coverage of the Zapata affair as part of the plot.

The countrys vice-president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, blamed mafioso lawyers, lying media and crooked politicians for a political and media conspiracy and threatened to jail reporters who had covered the story.

Garcia Linera went on to name media outlets and individual journalists, some of whom fled the country as a result, prompting condemnation from press freedom watchdogs the Inter American Press Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Earlier this week, Claudio Paolillo, chairman of the IAPAs committee on freedom of the press and information, warned against the old practice of intimidating journalists and denigrating the media to dissuade them from reporting on matters of public interest.

We deeply condemn the fact that the government is always seeking to stigmatize the press, labeling it a cartel, as if it were a gang of delinquents, he said.
Political analyst Carlos Toranzo says urban Bolivians increasingly believe the Zapata case has become a show trial to vindicate Morales, who announced in May that he would call for another referendum on seeking a fourth term in office before his mandate ends in 2019.

Child or no child, there was influence-peddling involving Zapata, said Toranzo. He claims the new allegations against the media are part of a smokescreen designed to distract attention from serious allegations of corruption involving Morales Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) coalition which has a majority in the countrys legislative assembly.

Attempts to cover up the scandal reveal a creeping authoritarianism, said Carlos Cordero a political scientist at La Pazs San Andres University who argued that, after a decade in office, Bolivians are growing weary of Morales.

In Latin America, in particular Bolivia, theres fatigue with the left which got into power democratically but descended into authoritarianism or corruption, he said.

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