Evo's Indigenous Problem

10/05/2011 06:15 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

A group of indigenous Bolivians are on the march; making their slow way from the sweltering Amazon jungles to La Paz. Waiting for them in this Andean capital city, wedged into a crevice at 13,000 feet, is the country's first Coca Growers Union leader to make it to the presidency -- Evo Morales.

Mr. Morales is fully aware of the dangers of an indigenous blockade of the capital city. He used the same tactics himself in 2003 when he shut down La Paz and forced the exile of then-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. He rode the wave of discontent that followed to the highest office in the land.

But now, it's Mr. Morales who is facing discontent. The problems started with the announced elimination of gas subsidies in January of 2011. These subsidies cost the Bolivian government more than $600 million a year -- an enormous amount for the poverty stricken Andean nation. Yet this plan met with fierce resistance from the poor communities -- especially the Aymara Indigenous community in El Alto, a highland poor suburb of La Paz and one of Morales's key constituencies. Mr. Morales was forced to withdraw the plan; but his approval rating fell double digits and has not recovered.

The newest problem for President Morales arrived with his decision to build a highway through the TIPNIS -- an important national park and sacred ground for the indigenous communities in the east of the country. The concession for this project has been given to the Brazilian company OAS -- a group with close ties to former Brazilian President Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva. Lula even went to Bolivia to lobby on behalf of OAS as the crisis heated up.

Upon hearing the news of the destruction of their hallowed forest, the indigenous communities of the TIPNIS organized and began to march on the capital, demanding the cessation of the project. The march was halted in the province of Beni, where it was met by brutal repression by more than 500 riot police. The marching Indians were severely beaten; and there are rumors of multiple deaths although those are hard to confirm. This repression, naturally, only made the indigenous groups angrier. They kidnapped the Bolivian Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca -- an indigenous Quechua -- and forced him to march alongside for a time. They also redoubled their commitment to march to the Capital. The repression also cost Morales important political support; both his minister of defense and minister of government (equivalent of chief of staff) resigned in protest at the violence.

President Morales is in a tough spot. For one, Morales has never been an indigenous leader -- despite his campaign to portray himself as such in the international media. President Morales made a name for himself as the President of the Coca Growers Union; he is a "cocalero." This fact has made his leadership over the coalition of Bolivia's more than 30 diverse indigenous groups tenuous. There are even rumblings of discontent out of El Alto in solidarity with the TIPNIS indigenous groups; a fact that must have Morales worried. El Alto brings down governments. Yet Morales also risks alienating Lula and the Brazilians. This would invite disaster; Brazil has been an important ally of Morales, and Brazilian companies are voraciously predatory and not opposed to supporting politicians they see as more in line with their interests; as was famously demonstrated in the recent Peruvian elections.

The one thing that is clear, President Morales's peculiar version of mob authoritarianism appears to have turned against him. It remains to be seen if the president's not unsubstantial political skills will help him maneuver out of yet another tight spot, or if he will be joining the ranks of so many other Bolivian presidents in exile.

Joel D. Hirst is a principal at the Cordoba Group International and a Latin America expert. Mr. Hirst tweets at www.twitter.com/joelhirst