LA PAZ, Bolivia — As three-term Bolivian President Evo Morales' political party sought to return to power a year after his resignation, the exiled ex-leader had vowed to return home the "next day" if it won last Sunday's national election.
Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party, known as MAS, earned a landslide electoral victory, propelling Morales' former economic minister, Luis Arce, into the presidency without the need for a runoff vote.
But Morales — still the formal leader of the MAS — has yet to set out on his homecoming, and the new government is grappling with how to handle the prospective return of the iconic 60-year-old, who is beloved by many Bolivians but loathed by others. If, or when, he does return, Morales faces sundry criminal charges, including allegations of terrorism stemming from electoral fraud in last year's balloting — charges he denies.
Morales, who views himself as the ideological heir of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, the now-deceased former leftist leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, has long been a vociferous critic of U.S. "imperialism" in Latin America. When he resigned amid the disputed election, he called his departure, under pressure from the Bolivian military, the result of a U.S.-backed, right-wing coup.
The Trump administration celebrated it as a victory for democracy.
But on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo joined with leftist governments in Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba in sending congratulations to Arce. Pompeo also declared that Washington "looks forward to working with the new, democratically elected government."
Bolivian electoral officials released final results on Friday showing that Arce, now officially the president-elect, had garnered more than 55% of the vote. Key to his support was backing from the country's poor, working-class and indigenous masses, long the base of MAS.
The majority margin avoided a runoff in which Arce would have faced a united opposition under the banner of former President Carlos Mesa, who finished second with about 29% of the vote. MAS candidates also appeared headed for a majority in the Legislative Assembly.
To date, President-elect Arce has tried to sidestep questions about Morales' possible return, pointedly, if uncomfortably, distancing himself from his long-time mentor. Few here can envision Morales being anything but the top guy.
"If Evo Morales wants to help us, he will be very welcome," Arce told the BBC. "But that does not mean that Morales will be in the government. ... I am not Evo Morales."