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. 

To be fair, there are many reasons for Morales's about-face. His constituents push for inconsistent agendas -- many of them want both development and conservation, for instance. And Morales's desire to diminish U.S. hegemony has forced his government to strengthen ties with another world power, Brazil, which happens to be financing the controversial freeway. But above all, throughout his political career, Morales has displayed an impressive capacity to inspire people to struggle against establishment forces. Now that he is the establishment, he has not been able to come to terms with the fact that compromise is a necessary part of wielding power.

To appreciate the twist of fate, consider Morales's ascent. He took office in 2006, with 53 percent of the vote, and immediately convened a constitutional assembly. While that process forged along, he bucked widespread international fears over uncontrolled drug production and cracked down on cocaine manufacturing. The economy soared under his direction, posting an average of 5.2 percent annual growth through 2009, a rate not seen for 30 years. His administration won praise for making cash transfers to poor families conditioned on their agreement to keep their children in school, as well as for providing public health care to all pregnant women and infants. 

The opposition challenged Morales regularly, but he parried their attacks with ease. He fended off a 2008 recall referendum waged by the wealthy and mostly white elites of the low-lying eastern provinces, where oil money flows. When he prevailed with two-thirds of the vote, Morales put the newfound political capital to use, finalizing the new constitution. A popular vote a year later formalized its adoption. Morales was riding high. 

After he securely won a second term, Morales set out to, as he put it, "decolonize" the country. He nationalized the gas and oil industry, instituted land reforms, chipped away at U.S. influence by building contacts with other nations, such as China and Iran, and granted indigenous societies the right to create their own legal institutions. He defended the environment, or Pachamama ("Mother Earth," in Aymaran), as he regularly calls it. He pulled it off. In October of 2009, the UN General Assembly named Morales World Hero of Mother Earth.

Morales departed for the December 2009 climate-change conference in Copenhagen bursting with confidence. After placing the blame for climate change squarely with industrialized nations and on the capitalist model, he insisted that wealthier countries pay billions of dollars in reparations to their less developed counterparts. The top U.S. representative called the request "wildly unrealistic," and Washington subsequently cut climate-change aid to Bolivia. Morales invited world leaders and activists to Cochabamba for an environmental conference of his own. Some 30,000 people from more than 100 nations took him up on his offer. Later, Bolivia passed a law that recognized Mother Earth as a living entity and, at least on paper, gave nature its own rights (as opposed to rights regarding nature held by human beings).

So it was all the more confounding when Morales decided to build a freeway through the heart of a national park and indigenous territory known as TIPNIS, an acronym for Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure. The plan would provide a quicker route between Cochabamba and Beni, promoting regional integration and economic development. The road was not originally Morales's idea -- it was also proposed by former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada -- a point that critics raised repeatedly. To make matters worse, the road was financed by Brazil and, opponents claimed, would largely serve that nation's interests. The great decolonizer was simply trading one master power for another.

What began as a relatively low-level local dispute quickly escalated. The Morales administration refused to even recognize opponents' concerns, ignoring the TIPNIS community's unanimous vote rejecting the proposal. Then Morales began making confrontational remarks such as "Whether they like it or not, we're going to build this road." . Critics called him dictatorial. When some 1,500 TIPNIS residents and supporters marched from Beni to La Paz, they had to pass through a province dominated by "colonist" cocaleros (coca growers) where support for TIPNIS was widespread. Locals vowed to stop the marchers in their tracks. The Morales government sent in the national police. Rather than hold back the cocaleros, however, for several days the police blocked the marchers' advance. Fed up, the marchers temporarily kidnapped a government official sent in to negotiate, and, with the official in custody, they broke the blockade. The next day, September 25, all hell broke loose. 

It was a Sunday, and the marchers were taking the day off. They were in camp, cooking, cleaning, and caring for their children. According to press reports, more than 450 police officers, along with two military planes, quickly descended on the camp. Officers fired tear gas on crowds containing small children and infants. They beat the marchers with nightsticks. The marchers shoved back. The police won out, detaining 200, handcuffing them and muzzling some with packaging tape. More than 100 were reportedly injured.

News spread rapidly, first by word of mouth and online media, then by the traditional outlets. A debate over conservation versus development suddenly turned into a raft of complaints that reached all the way to the presidential palace. Over the ensuing days, people took to the streets by the thousands, erecting blockades and paralyzing several cities, including La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. Exact numbers are elusive, but the unrest disrupted the country's economy.

Where was the Morales of indigenous rights, of socially inclusive constitutions, of standing up to injustice? That Morales had vanished. Instead, a new, more desperate Morales appeared, and he and his officials took to the airwaves. The official government channel presented the conflict in a very different light, showing images of a police officer harmed in the fray instead of the many more abundant images of beaten marchers. Three top officials -- Minister of Government Sacha Llorenti, Vice-Minister of Government Marcos Farfán, and Minister of Defense Cecilia Chacón -- eventually resigned.

Then Morales finally caved. On September 27, he announced that construction of the TIPNIS freeway would be postponed (though not canceled). He launched a government investigation into the crackdown. The highway plan will be re-examined. It is a highly fluid situation; most citizens remain skeptical of the government's response, and Morales is far from out of the woods. 

Nevertheless, Morales may very well cling to the presidency. Despite thousands of activists chanting for his resignation in La Paz, the political elite remains largely under Morales's control or too fractured by internal divisions to exploit the situation to its fullest. And even if his credibility has been severely damaged, his character suggests that he will fight to stay in office at least until his term ends in 2015. A poor boy from the backwater province of Oruro does not reach such a level of power without determination and a stomach for adversity. In 1989, as the head of the coca-growers' union, he was nearly beaten to death by anti-narcotics forces. In 2002, as a national legislator, he was expelled from Congress for advocating armed resistance to government abuse. These moments -- and these are but two examples -- would have defeated many a would-be politician, but not Morales. 

What to make of all this? Morales has fallen. He may manage to hold on to the presidency, but his credibility is damaged among his most devoted constituents, perhaps beyond repair. Reconciling his development and conservation goals would be a start, but Morales seems incapable of acknowledging the tension, let alone offering compromise solutions that are palatable to the majority of Bolivians. If he keeps his job, in fact, it will be by default: the opposition forces, though many, are wracked by infighting and conflicting agendas.

Morales has always been a polarizing figure in Bolivia. He has always been hated by a fair chunk of the population, even if the fiercest critics have been in the minority. For the majority, Morales marked a real break from a string of neoliberal governments that served only to strengthen the status quo and entrench the wealth-poverty gap. Morales elevated hopes, but now he has dashed them. As he has now learned, it is sometimes better to be a constant enemy than a fair-weather ally. And, as Morales may also be learning, pride and determination can propel you to political heights, but maintaining the confidence of the people requires something more.

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  • NICHOLAS FROMHERZ is an attorney and an environmental law and policy scholar with Adelante Mujeres in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
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