LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Bolivian President Evo Morales said wants to see a son he says he'd long thought dead in a strange new twist to a scandal focused on his former girlfriend, who has been arrested as part of an influence-trafficking probe into the Chinese firm where she worked.
Morales' former lover, Gabriela Zapata, was charged Saturday with illegal enrichment, laundering of unjust gains and influence trafficking as part of a probe by the government's anti-corruption agency into a Chinese company that has won more than $500 million worth of contracts with the state.
While the opposition accuses Morales of benefiting from the contracts, a claim he denies, most Bolivians have seemed more interested in the love child born of the secret romance.
Morales has acknowledged a brief relationship with Zapata and said the two had a child together in 2007, but that the infant later died. However on Saturday, a woman claiming to be Zapata's aunt said the child was alive and named Ernesto Fidel.
Morales said Monday that he had been led by Zapata to believe that the child had died, but celebrated that the boy was apparently alive and well.
"If the family allows it, I'll pick up the child. I have a right to care for it," Morales said in a statement to the press in which he didn't allow any questions. "I hope in the coming hours they'll bring me the child. I want to assume my responsibilities."
Zapata, 29, has yet to comment. Except for a single interview and statement, she has been largely silent even while becoming a household name in the country.
But her proximity to power have become a major headache for Morales, who is still reeling from a narrow defeat in a referendum this month that would've allowed him to seek re-election when his term ends in 2020.
In 2013, Zapata became general manager for Bolivia of China CAMC Engineering Co. Ltd., whose seven contracts with the state, all but one no-bid, are worth more than $500 million. She was charged along with two other officials in the president's office.
Many of Morales' opponents say it's impossible the president could have been so easily deceived about the death of the child and are calling for an investigation. They point to a now-famous photo showing Morales embracing and smiling with Zapata at a carnival celebration last year as evidence that their relationship continued when Zapata began to work for the Chinese firm.
Morales has dismissed the accusations as a ploy by his enemies and the United States. He said he takes hundreds of photos with admirers and only recognized Zapata in the snapshot after it was taken.
Carlos Valverde, the journalist who revealed the relationship and showed the child's birth certificate on TV, said he regrets that attention is being focused on Morales' romance.
"I don't care about Morales' personal life, just the connection between this relationship and the public's interest," he said on Monday
Morales, a 56-year-old bachelor, has largely kept his private life out of the headlines since taking office a decade ago. In the past, he has said he's "married to Bolivia" and too busy fulfilling his job as the country's first indigenous president to have time for romance.
But earlier, as a congressman and coca grower making his push for power, he fathered two children and initially failed to provide child support. In the face of a lawsuit by one of his former lovers, Morales eventually recognized his paternity and is now close to one of the children, daughter Eva Liz Morales, who says she wants to follow in her father's footsteps into politics.