The Rise and Fall of Bolivia's Evo Morales

How South America's First Indigenous President Lost His Way

Evo Morales's rise from the humblest of origins to the Bolivian presidency has been remarkable. Since taking office five years ago, this son of subsistence farmers has won himself fame, bolstered his support, and filled ordinary Bolivians with pride through his unabashed defense of indigenous rights, his refusal to compromise at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, and, more broadly, his willingness to thumb his nose at states far larger and more powerful than his own. When the country adopted a new constitution (largely of Morales's making) that enhanced rights for the environment and native peoples in 2009, the leader in La Paz officially turned his charging rhetoric into concrete results. In the space of just a few years, Morales convinced Bolivians, and not just the traditional elites, that their government can serve their interests and make a difference on the world stage.

All this makes the developments of the last month that much more confusing -- and surprising. Many in Bolivia today are asking what went wrong. How is it that, just a year after ushering in a new law that gave unprecedented rights to what he calls "Mother Earth," Morales fought to build a freeway through a national park, trampling on protected indigenous territory? Could it really be that, after protests erupted, the first indigenous president in the history of South America violently repressed the very people who were instrumental in granting him that honor in the first place, leaving more than 100 injured?

In fact, he did both, which has caused a political crisis in La Paz and undermined his comfortable grip on power. The explanation for Morales's confusing turnaround lies in something that Bolivian dissidents have been complaining about for a while now. The leader's intransigence -- the exact quality that helped him remake Bolivia -- now threatens to undermine his administration. 

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