Bolivians reproach Morales over protest crackdown

September 28, 2011 - 5:35 PM
Bolivia Morales Stumbles

Protesters shouts slogans against Bolivia’s President Evo Morales in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday Sept. 28, 2011. Tens of thousands of people are marching in Bolivia's major cities, and the country's main labor federation has called a general strike to protest the government's crackdown on indigenous marchers protesting a jungle highway. The poster reads in Spanish:

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Tens of thousands of Bolivians took to the streets in major cities Wednesday to heap reproach on President Evo Morales over a police crackdown on indigenous protesters that badly damaged the leftist leader's credibility.

The marchers decried the perceived betrayal by Bolivia's first Indian president of constituencies whose banners Morales had long waved: native groups and environmentalists.

"Evo was a very strong symbol for many people. He embodied principles of justice, of human rights. But now these people are disenchanted," said Jim Shultz, an analyst with the think tank The Democracy Center, which works closely with Bolivian issues.

Some Bolivians, such as 44-year-old schoolteacher Juana Pinto, said Morales had proved a disappointment.

"This government is the worst and it should go because it attacked human beings, the indigenous compatriots who had given it their support, and now it's turned its back on them," said Pinto, who took part in a march that brought central La Paz to a standstill.

Bolivia's main labor federation also called a 24-hour general strike for Wednesday that appeared only partially successful as most businesses were open.

Neither the federation nor any other major political group has called for Morales' resignation; the opposition is weak, discredited and badly splintered. Several of its top leaders are wanted for alleged sedition and have fled abroad.

Morales grew up poor and championed a new constitution in 2010 that declared Bolivia a plurinational state and granted its 36 indigenous groups an as yet ill-defined autonomy. In recent months, Morales has stumbled badly in the art of compromise.

The president, an Aymara Indian who was himself beaten by U.S.-funded police as a young activist in a coca growers union, first won office in December 2005 in large part because of his association with long marginalized social groups. His ethnic origins spoke to a country where two in three people are indigenous.

Nearly six years and one landslide re-election later, however, he has been forced to weigh development against environmental protection. And that meant, in the standoff that led to the crackdown, balancing the rights of some 15,000 inhabitants of an indigenous preserve against what he has said are the common interests of 10 million Bolivians.

The Morales "revolution" reached a crossroads last year when he decided to pursue a 190-mile (300-kilometer) jungle highway funded by Brazil through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park, or TIPNIS, in the eastern lowlands state of Beni.

Some 1,000 people began a march on La Paz in mid-August from Beni's capital, Trinidad, to protest the highway as an open invitation to loggers and coca-planting settlers and a threat to park inhabitants, who live as hunter-gatherers and survive by subsistence farming. That march was broken up on Sunday by riot police.

The police fired tear gas, swung truncheons and arrested several hundred marchers, an assault widely condemned as excessive and unprovoked though no deaths were reported.

The crackdown backfired when local supporters forced police to free the arrested marchers.

The defense minister resigned immediately in protest, and Morales announced Monday that he was suspending the highway project and would let voters in the affected region decide its fate. And on Wednesday, authorities announced that they had evicted more than 100 families of coca growers who had invaded TIPNIS in an operation launched the previous day.

"Evo is facing that moment that all governments face. Whether they are revolutionary are not, the moment comes when they must push for development," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University political science professor of Bolivian origin.

Many environmentalists and indigenous activists called Morales a hypocrite who violated the new constitution by insisting on the highway without the backing of TIPNIS inhabitants. Morales was also slammed for vilifying Bolivia's main lowlands indigenous federation, which supported the inhabitants, by accusing it of being a tool of alleged U.S. intrigue. To back up his charges, Morales released phone records showing calls between federation leaders and a USAID official, which the U.S. Embassy said were routine and proved no such conspiracy.

"Like it or not, we are going to build the highway," Morales said at the time.

His reputation as an anti-environmentalist at home contrasts sharply with his behavior at international climate change negotiations, where he has helped torpedo agreements he believes don't go far enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Analysts nevertheless concur that Morales, Bolivia's longest-serving president since the country emerged from dictatorship in 1985, will survive the political fallout.

"He has an extraordinary ability to muddle through," said Gamarra.

The controversy, however, has claimed political casualties.

Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti, a leading human rights activist before Morales took office, resigned Tuesday to accept responsibility for Sunday's crackdown, though he said neither he nor Morales had ordered it.

That has spurred debate about how hands-on Morales is as a leader. Some Bolivians say he has become overly intoxicated by the international limelight.

While the jungle highway dispute was heating up last week, Morales was at the United Nations backing statehood for Palestinians and repeating condemnations of Washington for alleged interventionism in Bolivia, the world's No. 3 cocaine-producing nation, by declaring it not sufficiently cooperative in the war on drugs.

Such speeches have been popular among Bolivians, but they haven't kept Morales' approval rating from dipping to 37 percent this month.

That rating had dipped even lower, to 32 percent in February, a month after Morales announced a gasoline price increase only to reverse himself after nationwide protests.

Morales was meeting with his Cabinet and had no immediate comment on Wednesday's protest. His communications minister, Ivan Canelas, told reporters the government "is disposed to dialogue."

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Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, and Paola Flores in La Paz contributed to this report.

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Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak