Underneath the sweater: Bolivia’s Evo Morales faces mounting opposition

November 2, 2011

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(AP/Dolores Ochoa)
Indigenous people rest during a 242-mile trek from Trinidad to La Paz to protest the government's highway plan.

Since elected in 2006, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales has been hailed as a morally-driven leader of the people. Known for his trademark alpaca wool sweaters, he's long touted his indigenous roots and anti-American, environmentally progressive politics. Among world leaders, Morales is one of the most active in pushing nations to adopt climate change legislation. In 2009, the U.N. even named him a “World Hero of Mother Earth.” 

Recently, however, Morales’ carefully crafted image has begun to crack. For months this year, he refused to relent in his support for a highway project through the TIPNIS National Park, a protected reserve in the Amazon basin. The area is home to 11 endangered species and three ethnic groups battling extinction of their own.

In response, indigenous groups recently marched 260 miles in protest from the lowland Amazon jungle -- where the park is located -- to the Bolivian capital of La Paz. Along the way, they faced a brutal police crackdown, which only increased national support for the protests.

Two weeks ago, Morales finally succumbed to mounting pressure and declared the project would be canceled. The political damage, however, was already done.

For analysis, we turn to Miguel Centellas, an expert on Bolivia and a political science professor at the University of Mississippi.