It is by now a familiar story: A Bolivian government has sparked massive street protests, and it has subsequently caved to the pressure. It happened in 2003, when President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned after a violent conflict over gas exports. It happened again in 2005, when his successor, Carlos Mesa, was forced to leave office amid fresh energy-policy disputes, and again in late 2010, when the incumbent president, Evo Morales, abolished fuel subsidies and then reversed his decision in the face of enormous public demonstrations. Morales is understandably sensitive to such demonstrations: He is a former union boss who led the protests that toppled Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and Mesa in 2005.
Now Morales has caved to a public outcry once again. On October 21, the Bolivian president announced that he was canceling plans for a Brazilian-financed jungle highway in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). TIPNIS is a section of the Amazon rainforest in north-central Bolivia, and the proposed highway had spurred ferocious opposition among Indian communities across the country. Morales claims the controversial road will still be constructed, just not through TIPNIS.
The anti-highway protests showed just how much he has alienated his indigenous political base. Even though Morales ultimately bowed to public demands, the government’s crackdown on Indian demonstrators will be hard for many Bolivians to forget. As Time reported, “hundreds of Bolivian police” physically assaulted the marchers, “taping women’s mouths and even spraying children with tear gas.”
Amid the highway imbroglio in mid-October, “thousands of protesting textile workers took to the streets demanding that Mr. Morales improve relations with the U.S. in order to foment exports,” according to the Wall Street Journal. (After Morales expelled both the U.S. ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration from Bolivia in 2008, the United States stopped granting his country trade preferences.) Meanwhile, Bolivia’s October 16 judicial elections -- which represented a thinly veiled government attack on judicial independence -- turned into a major embarrassment for Morales when most voters either deliberately spoiled their ballots or left them blank. The Bolivian government still hasn’t released the official election results, but the polling firm Ipsos Apoyo has estimated that a large majority of the ballots were invalid. A separate Ipsos Apoyo poll conducted last month found that Morales’s job approval has fallen to 35 percent, one of the lowest ratings for a national leader in the entire hemisphere.
Not only is Bolivia the poorest country in South America, it is also a racially and ethnically polarized society, with an Indian majority that resents the wealth and longstanding political power of the mestizo and white minority. These social divisions are compounded by geography: Most Indians live in the west, and most mestizos and whites live in the east. Morales is the first Indian president in Bolivian history, and he has a long history of clashing with mestizo and white businessmen during his days as a coca-growing union leader. Nevertheless, he took office in January 2006 with solid support among Bolivians of all races, and he won reelection in December 2009 with 64 percent of the vote. His mestizo/white support has since been obliterated by discriminatory government policies and Hugo Chávez–style power grabs, not to mention rampant corruption.