Morales backs down, suspends construction of key road in Bolivia

Had Bolivia's President Evo Morales not backed down in a dispute over the construction of a key road through the country's rainforest, deadly protests could have toppled his presidency, argues guest blogger James Bosworth.

Juan Karita/AP
Protesters sit on motorcycles next to burning tires during a blockade at the airport in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, Monday Sept. 26, 2011, as part of protests by indigenous and environmentalist groups against the construction of a government planned highway that would cut through the nature preserve Territorio Indigena Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure, TIPNIS, which is home to 15,000 natives.

Bolivian President Evo Morales backed down last night, suspending construction of the TIPNIS highway.

Indigenous groups protesting the road through their rainforest claimed that Bolivian police repression left one dead and many missing or arrested. Other protesters came to their aid, blocking the police from using the highway or the airports to transport prisoners out of the region. At least twenty social movements in eight departments around the country organized protests to show solidarity with the indigenous. The Minister of Defense resigned, complaining in a publicly released letter about the police action.

If Morales had pushed forward, continuing to demand that police stop the protesters, his government would have fallen before the end of the week. That is how serious this situation became yesterday.

So Morales changed course. He suspended the construction of the road, distanced himself from the police brutality, delayed future decisions, and tried to calm down the situation rather than escalate the tensions.

This protest fits the patterns of how President Morales has handled social conflicts.

The president begins by clashing hard with the protesting groups, insulting them, claiming they are linked to the US, trying to undermine them. However, whenever he realizes that he can't win, Morales backs down and gives in to demands. This is at least the fourth protest this year in which Morales has given in to some or all protester demands in order to halt the conflict that threatened his government.

Give him credit: in spite of initial stubbornness and refusal to negotiate, the president eventually knows when he can't win and accepts his loss before things get out of control.

That said, Morales is not in the clear yet.

There remains significant tension in the country. His suspension but not cancellation of the road may not be enough for indigenous groups or may just push the continuation of this protest to a future date.

There are other protesters with other issues based in urban regions who have latched onto this TIPNIS issue in recent weeks but who may try to now get their issues heard and resolved by the government. People across the political spectrum are not happy with how Minister of Government Sacha Llorenti has handled the situation with the police and the protesters, and the minister may be forced to resign in the coming days or weeks.

Morales pushed this social conflict further than previous ones before backing down. Playing politics so close to the edge is dangerous.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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