The Limits of Evo Morales’s Identity Politics

Not all of Bolivia's indigenous people are happy with the country's first indigenous president.

An aymara woman is seen walking next to a graffiti that reads "No Evo" after the referendum rejection in El Alto, Bolivia, on February 21. Bolivians on Sunday rejected leftist President Evo Morales' bid to seek a fourth term and potentially extend his presidency until 2025, local media reported. AFP/PHOTO/Aizar Raldes / AFP / AIZAR RALDES        (Photo credit should read AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images)
An aymara woman is seen walking next to a graffiti that reads "No Evo" after the referendum rejection in El Alto, Bolivia, on February 21. Bolivians on Sunday rejected leftist President Evo Morales' bid to seek a fourth term and potentially extend his presidency until 2025, local media reported. AFP/PHOTO/Aizar Raldes / AFP / AIZAR RALDES (Photo credit should read AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images)

To understand why Evo Morales experienced the greatest political defeat of his presidency last week in a national referendum, it helps to first understand why his greatest political victory took the same form.

The successful constitutional referendum that Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, organized in 2009 was the centerpiece of his long-promised bid to transform Bolivian politics and society. He invited the country’s indigenous peoples, who had faced centuries of marginalization despite comprising a majority of the population, to oversee the rewriting of the country’s foundational political document. The resulting text granted them unprecedented recognition, representation, and autonomy, enshrined the country’s controversial coca crop as national patrimony and “not a narcotic,” and included strong language on environmental protection.

On Sunday, Feb. 21, however, Bolivians narrowly voted down a constitutional change that would have allowed Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019. He conceded the loss three days later. A recent political scandal, involving the president’s secret child with a woman whose company would go on to win more than half a billion dollars in state contracts, didn’t help his cause. But the rejection of the referendum represented an electoral shift that extends beyond the current headlines. It was a reflection, in part, of the fact that critics have emerged to Morales’s left, including some of the very indigenous groups that played a central role in electing him in the first place.

Morales came to power as a populist outsider by promising Bolivia’s diverse indigenous population that it would no longer be relegated to the margins. Before he entered politics, he was a coca farmer — a traditional indigenous occupation — and as he rose up the ranks of the coca labor movement, he also amassed influence in Bolivia’s most influential union, formed by the country’s mostly indigenous peasant farmers, or campesinos. In the 1990s, the union created a new party to challenge Bolivia’s entrenched political establishment: the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS.

Morales emerged as this party’s leader, and in 2005 its alliance of unions, farmers, indigenous organizations, and leftist intellectuals helped elect him president. He campaigned on pledges to pursue sustainable development, nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas industry and redistribute its revenue, and eradicate what he described as the living legacy of colonialism from Bolivian government and society.

Despite steep resistance from the opposition, and threats of violence from right-wing vigilantes, Morales achieved his core objectives during his early years as president. He nationalized natural gas, which increased government revenue and allowed for the extensive expansion of popular and effective social programs that helped reduce poverty and bolster a new middle class. And the constitutional referendum signaled that Bolivia’s previously disenfranchised had become the country’s driving political force. “At the time of the constitutional assembly, there was an enthusiasm,” Fernando Garcés, a museum director at the University of Mayor de San Simón in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, and an advisor to indigenous and peasant organizations during the formulation process, told Foreign Policy during an interview amid assorted pre-Incan arrowheads and headdresses. “The whole range of possibilities was open, and we could do everything.”

But after the constitution was firmly in place, the relationship between the Morales administration and portions of its indigenous base began to change. Some key indigenous groups and leaders who played a central role in writing the new constitution and helping usher in Morales’s political revolution have become some of the government’s harshest critics.

To be certain: Morales still has robust support among Bolivia’s indigenous populations. He still has an approval rating of more than 60 percent. The largest indigenous organizations worked hard to pass the recent referendum to keep him in power, and he maintains a lockdown on political support in many rural areas. But prominent groups of indigenous activists have clashed with the Morales administration over development projects that threaten the environment and traditional indigenous ways of life. These clashes, and the strong-arm tactics the government has used to discredit and silence its critics, have fractured parts of Morales’s political base, causing middle-class urban voters to follow prominent intellectuals and activists in defecting to an increasingly diverse opposition. Those defections have not only undermined Morales’s plans to run for re-election — they have also undermined his preferred image as the protector of the country’s indigenous population and the “decolonizer” of the Bolivian nation.

A turning point in the relationship between Morales and segments of his indigenous base came in 2010 when the government proposed building a highway that would traverse a national park and indigenous reserve called TIPNIS, an acronym of the territory’s Spanish name. Although the government promised that the highway would bring prosperity and development to the region, local indigenous leaders took issue with predicted outcomes: environmental damage and a new, easy way for outsiders to settle on their ancestral land — 2.5 million acres of biodiverse rainforest, home to numerous protected species. Indigenous groups organized a protest march from the Amazonian city of Trinidad to the capital city of La Paz, high in the Andes hundreds of miles away. The police interceded, arresting a number of protesters, which sparked national outrage and rare international attention.

The controversy over TIPNIS inflamed long-standing tensions between various indigenous groups. The organizations that opposed the highway mostly represented minority groups of indigenous people who primarily live on large protected indigenous territories with communal landholding. Morales received strong support, however, from the Quechua- and Aymara-speaking indigenous majorities who decades ago settled on individual farmholdings and often refer to themselves as campesinos. For decades, organizations representing the minority indigenous groups in the TIPNIS territory have been filing resolutions and complaints alleging that the Aymara and Quechua campesinos that dominated Bolivia’s highlands (like Morales and his family) were migrating to Bolivia’s lowlands and trespassing on their territory in search of fertile soil to grow coca.

And even prior to the TIPNIS controversy, some minority indigenous groups had harbored suspicions about Morales’s broader socialist economic platform. “They saw the government in a certain moment as an ally,” said Garcés, but they never considered it “their government.” Morales’s brand of governance, and his emphasis on redistributing the wealth derived from natural resources, was ultimately hard to reconcile with the demands for greater local autonomy by many indigenous groups living on the land containing those resources.

“The rights of indigenous people are opposed to politics of economic development based on resource extraction,” said Hernán Avila, the director of CEJIS, an NGO dedicated to defending indigenous groups and indigent farmers, in an interview in his office in Cochabamba. “The government needs the extractivist companies that give it the money to continue with its populist policies, policies of cash transfers and the rest.”

In October 2011, the Morales government agreed to temporarily halt construction on the highway but accused indigenous critics on the left of collusion with foreign-funded NGOs, and especially the United States government. Morales brought the controversy back to life, however, in June 2015 when he renewed the call for the highway, just one month after passing a resolution that would open a network of protected reserves — national parks and indigenous territories — to hydrocarbon exploration. “This project will be realized, comrades,” he said at the time.

The status of the road remains uncertain. Morales and several cabinet members have restated their commitment to build it. But environmental and indigenous advocates, as well as statements from the government itself, indicate that the future of the highway is an open question. “For the moment, there’s no project to build a highway through TIPNIS,” Fernando Zelada, who runs the local government agency responsible for roads and highways in Beni, a province through which the highway must pass to get to the reserve, said last week. “There’s a law that prohibits it…. The project was cut off, and there’s no more information.”

TIPNIS aside, the past 10 years have been transformational, in a positive way, for Bolivia’s indigenous population. Even some members of the indigenous organizations that campaigned against the TIPNIS highway still feel love for Morales. In a recent meeting at the headquarters of Conamaq (one of the country’s prominent indigenous organizations, which, along with a group called Cidob, led the first round of opposition to the TIPNIS project), one activist dressed in a traditional poncho and brightly colored woven hat, embroidered with images of animals and other traditional symbols from his region, could not contain his enthusiasm for the president. “The president, our brother, is from Oruro, so he’s family, right?” he asked. “In a family, there is no hatred; there is support, solidarity, working together. And now an indigenous brother is president.”

But he was speaking in the offices of an organization substantially weaker than the one that first opposed TIPNIS, having split into two factions along lines of support for the government. The division of Conamaq demonstrates a strange side effect of the conflict over the highway and, perhaps more indirectly, of the election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Some of the country’s most prominent indigenous organizations have become weaker, broken into fragments, or been caught up in corruption scandals. The organizations that agitated against the TIPNIS project have been reduced to shadows of their former selves. Critics argue that the government played a role in fomenting and encouraging these splits in order to undermine their opposition to his policies.

In some ways, Morales is the victim of his own success. The constituency he unified in resistance to the previous political establishment, and in support of certain basic political and economic reforms, began expressing its discomfort with other aspects of his agenda once those key reforms had been passed and the specter of pre-Morales conservatism had dissipated. After a prosperous decade, which has seen unprecedented social inclusion and the rise of a new indigenous middle class, whatever government succeeds Morales will do so with a mandate to expand on his achievements. But Morales’s handling of the TIPNIS conflict early on in his second term, and his underhanded machinations against critics on the left in the years since, have not only undermined his legacy, but created a strong basis for opposition from across the political spectrum.

Megan Alpert contributed reporting.

Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Mongabay Special Reporting Initiatives program.

Photo credit: Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images

Alexandra Ellerbeck is a research associate for the Americas program at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She worked previously as a Freedom on the Net researcher at Freedom House and was a Fulbright teaching fellow at the State University of Pará, in Brazil. She has also lived in Chile and Bolivia. She received a Davenport grant in 2012 to research party structure in Bolivia's governing Movement Toward Socialism.

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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