The scandal over Bolivia's populist President Evo Morales' secret love affair, with a young woman with whom he had a child whom the president says has died, but the woman says is alive, is making headlines throughout Latin America. But that's the least outrageous part of this story.
What's really scandalous about this real-life soap opera is what it is revealing about Morales' near absolute powers, and the fact that he is awarding almost all government contracts -- 99 percent of them, according to a soon-to-be-published book -- through no-bid contracts. That's a recipe for massive corruption.
The scandal broke out last month, when a journalist revealed that Morales had a love child with Gabriela Zapata, and that Zapata had served for the past three years as commercial manager of a Chinese firm that had received more than $500 million in Morales government contracts to build roads, railroads and other public works.
The Chinese firm, CAMC Engineering, got most of these contracts without public biddings, according to Carlos Valverde, the journalist who broke the Morales-Zapata story.
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At first, Morales did what he always does when accused of any wrongdoing: He blamed the U.S. Embassy for carrying out an alleged plot to discredit him. He conceded that he used to have a romantic relationship with Zapata, and that the couple had a child -- named Ernesto Fidel, presumably after Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Fidel Castro -- but claimed that the child is dead, and that he had not seen Zapata in about five years.
Trouble is, only hours after the president said he had not seen Zapata in several years, a picture popped up on social media showing Morales with Zapata during a carnival celebration last year. Morales claimed that he had not recognized her and that she was one of the many people who approach him for pictures during public events. Shortly thereafter, Zapata's aunt told the press that the child, Ernesto Fidel, was alive and well.
As allegations about Zapata's leading role at CAMC Engineering and the firm's huge government contracts multiplied in the media, Zapata was arrested on Feb. 26 under investigation for alleged illicit enrichment. Her relatives say she is innocent.
But what's most worrying about the story is that the government contracts with CAMC Engineering seem to be part of a wider pattern of no-bid contracts that has soared during the Morales presidency.
Diego Ayo, a professor at Bolivia's Universidad Mayor de San Andres and co-author of the forthcoming book "Where has the bonanza gone?", told me in a telephone interview that public bids for government contracts have virtually disappeared since Morales took office 10 years ago.
Based on official figures from Bolivia's Economic Development Ministry, Ayo says that the percentage of government contracts assigned through public bids fell from 76 percent in 2004, to 41 percent in 2010, to 8 percent in 2013, to 1 percent in 2014. Yes, you read right, 1 percent.
"This means that almost all the money belonging to the Bolivian people has been transferred to companies handpicked by the government," Ayo said. "This has created a climate that facilitates corruption."
In his book, Ayo and other academics also say that the Morales government has spent $27 billion in public investments since 2005, of which the bulk -- $18 billion -- has gone to highly visible "presidential projects" that produce an illusion of prosperity, but that have a relatively small long-term impact.
"The government has built more than 500 soccer fields, where the president plays and scores numerous goals, but very little on strategic projects," Ayo told me. "Bolivia invests only 0.3 percent of its gross domestic product on innovation, research and development, one of the lowest percentages in Latin America."
My opinion: The Morales-Zapata scandal is diverting public attention away from the fact that Bolivia's radical populist leader has -- much like his colleagues in Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua -- squandered much of his country's recent commodity bonanza in dubious no-bid contracts.
Morales' private life is largely his own business. But if 99 percent of government contracts are awarded without public bids, and a number of them go to people like the mother of the president's child, it's everybody's business. That's the real scandal!
Andres Oppenheimer, a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, can be reached at 3511 N.W. 91 Ave., Doral, Fla. 33172; email: aoppenheimermiamiherald.com.