Evo Morales’s Latest Ploy for Power: A Highway through the Bolivian Jungle

The once unquestioned President Evo Morales is losing his stranglehold on power. As a result, Morales and his allies are looking for ways to increase public support. To this end, Morales recently approved the construction of a highway that would cut through a Bolivian national park. The Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park, or TIPNIS, is a 6 thousand square mile park in Bolivia’s heartland. The construction of the 190-mile highway will cause environmental destruction but will improve the country’s infrastructure. The highway will be a part of a trans-national infrastructure project connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. With this decision, Morales’s approval rating will increase with his opposition and decrease with his base. The highway will presumably help him gain sufficient popularity with his opposition so he can remain in power in Bolivia’s 2019 elections.

Image Courtesy of flickr, © 2011
Protestors in La Paz in 2011 in march against the proposed highway.

President Morales has been in power for over a decade. He was elected on a platform of nationalism. Morales gave voice to the country’s underrepresented indigenous majority. Things are changing. A growing middle class of indigenous people is moving to urban centers. They are beginning to stand against Morales as Bolivia’s economy stalls and becomes over-reliant on exploration of natural resources.

Morales was handed his first major loss in the Bolivian Constitutional Referendum in 2016. Fifty-one percent of the population voted against a motion that would abolish presidential term limits. For now, Morales cannot run for re-election in 2019.

The indigenous population of Bolivia opposes the proposed highway. It will cut through the land of the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes tribes, displacing thousands of its people by dividing the national park and its ‘biodiversity hotbed’ in two. Those opposing the highway believe that the destruction of natural resources and displacement of indigenous tribes for the sake of farmers and executives is a betrayal of platforms that got Morales elected. Morales first approved the construction of the highway in 2011. Thousands of indigenous people marched in protest against the decision forcing Morales to revert his position. This time, it seems less likely that Morales will reverse course.

Coca farmers, entrepreneurs, and the urban middle class support this decision. Earlier this year, Morales passed a law allowing farmers to legally plant 22,000 hectares of coca. The previous limit was 12,000 hectares. The approval of the project removes TIPNIS’s protected status. This will increase the amount of land available for farmers, allowing Morales to keep his promise and improve Bolivia’s economic output and infrastructure once coca derivatives become one of Bolivia’s main exports.

Loggers and those seeking to extract mineral resources from the region will also benefit from the ruling. They will be able to take advantage of the improved infrastructure and the removal of protected status of the park to advance their enterprises. Some experts estimate that 65% of TIPNIS will disappear within 20 years because of this exploration. Although it would be an ecological disaster, this will give the Bolivian economy a boost that will improve Morales’s approval rating with business leaders.

The highway will also provide another point of access for landlocked Bolivia to the Pacific Ocean. Bolivia lost the part of its territory that touched the Pacific Ocean in the 1879 War of the Pacific to Chile. Bolivia has been trying to vindicate its access to a maritime port ever since. This is an issue of national pride and economic development. If Morales is able to deliver on the highway and improve Bolivia’s access to the ocean, he is sure to gain support across social and economic classes.

Most analysts believe Morales will not give up the presidency easily. While still not legally allowed to run, it is clear that the approval of the highway is an attempt to bolster his chances of running for re-election in 2019. Morales is betting that the support of coca farmers, and the country’s growing middle class will outweigh the support he will lose from his base constituency. Economic improvement in the short-term, spurred by the highway, will help Morales make his case.

The 2019 elections will tell if playing politics will succeed in maintaining a leftist stronghold in the region. Morales’s battle to gain re-election is not only important to Bolivia, but to Latin America. In its most recent political cycle, right-leaning governments are winning election after election in the region. Morales’s government, however far from the left-leaning ideas that got him to power, is one of Latin America’s last left-wing bastions. Morales’s victory could stagnate or reverse this cycle.

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