Morales’ Identity Crisis

By Vivian Wang

The streets of Cochabamba, Bolivia are lined with ritzy car dealerships and greasy street stalls. College students clad in jeans and t-shirts walk alongside short, wrinkled women swathed in colorful shawls and bearing giant cloth sacks on their backs. A ride on the trufi, or microbus, is filled with the familiar sounds of Spanish mixed with the unfamiliar sounds of Quechua, one of Bolivia’s several dozen indigenous languages. Cochabamba is a city with an identity crisis.

About 62 percent of Bolivia’s population self-identify as indigenous. Cochabamba, located in the Andean altiplano, or highlands, is home to the Quechua people, the largest indigenous group in the country. The Aymara people also make their home in the altiplano. Together, the Quechua and Aymara people form nearly 90 percent of the country’s indigenous population; the remaining 10 percent is made up of the country’s 34 other recognized indigenous groups, who largely reside in the eastern lowlands. Over the past few decades, as Bolivia has undergone rapid urbanization, cities like Cochabamba have offered glimpses into a centuries-old tension between the indigenous majority and an elite, wealthy minority of European descent, who trace their ancestry to the 16th century Spanish conquest.

Cochabamba is also the place where Evo Morales, the country’s current president, first rose to national prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s as an activist and union leader in the coca growers industry. Reelected by a 60 percent landslide to a third term this past October, Morales—or “Evo,” as he is affectionately known—is the country’s first indigenous president. An indigenous president for one of the world’s most diverse countries—an obvious step in the right direction for a culture with a long history of repressing and discriminating against its native population.

Or is it?

Morales, a member of the Aymara people, campaigned on a platform of, among other issues, promoting indigenous rights. During his time in office, extreme poverty (which has historically been most prevalent among the indigenous population) has declined by more than 43 percent. A recent United Nations report found that Bolivia had the highest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America from 2000 through 2012. In a 2009 referendum, Bolivians ratified a new constitution that declared their country to be a “plurinational” state with 36 official indigenous languages in addition to Spanish, and in 2010, Morales signed a “Law Against Racism and Any Form of Discrimination.” His slogan for his most recent campaign was “Juntos vamos bien para vivir bien,”: “Together We Work Well to Live Well.” Sixty years ago, indigenous people were not allowed to set foot into the main square of the country’s capital city; now, an indigenous man has received a sweeping mandate to hold office for a third term. Both Morales’s supporters and critics say (or admit) that Bolivia’s indigenous people have made unprecedented strides in the past decade.

The question is whether this progress is sustainable. Beneath the sweeping rhetoric and grandiose legislative gestures, some still wonder whether Morales really has the indigenous peoples’ interests in mind, or if he is more concerned with political self-preservation. They point to recent clashes between indigenous groups and Morales’s government as proof that Morales will only help the indigenous people when it suits his purposes. Does Morales have the right intentions? And if the indigenous people are benefiting anyway—does it matter?


I first encountered the complex political situation of Bolivia’s indigenous people this past summer, when I spent six weeks working for a NGO in Cochabamba. I befriended a local college student, Pablo, and we took a weekend trip to the capital city of La Paz.

We were walking through the city when I noticed a huge billboard overhead. It depicted a smiling man in a construction worker’s hard hat and featured information about an upcoming October election. Pablo explained that the man was Evo Morales, the country’s president, and that elections were in a few months.

When I asked Pablo what his opinion was of Morales and who he was going to vote for in October, he shrugged. Morales is controversial in some circles, he said, for his socialist policies and background as a leader of the coca growers unions. In other circles, he is hugely popular for that same union leader background. Many laud his efforts on measures such as the anti-discrimination law and the nationalization of Bolivia’s extensive natural resources—which was done, Morales has constantly said, for the good of the indigenous people and their pachamama, or Mother Earth.

In the particular billboard I saw, Morales wore a worker’s construction hat; in other billboards, he is shown in indigenous garb. But the message is the same: he is a man of the people. And the people love him. He enjoys widespread public support, especially among the rural, indigenous lower classes—“which ends up being the great majority of the population,” said Gabriela Morales (no relation to the president), a Yale graduate student in anthropology who specializes in Bolivia.

Pablo was indifferent to Morales, but Pablo is not of the rural, lower-class indigenous people. Demographically, he more closely resembles the people of Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia. Located in the eastern part of the country atop huge reserves of natural gas, Santa Cruz has historically been one of the richest areas of Bolivia, contributing over 35 percent of Bolivia’s GDP. Its residents are largely of European descent. When Morales was first elected in 2005, his plane could not even land in Santa Cruz, Gabriela Morales tells me, because local opposition to his election was so widespread. In fact, the department of Santa Cruz tried to secede in 2007. Pro-secession activists cited concerns over Morales’s attempts to control Santa Cruz’s oil and natural gas sources, but many of their arguments were “couched in a lot of racially fraught language,” Gabriela said.

Yet something seems to have radically shifted between then and now. In October’s election, Morales won the department of Santa Cruz for the first time, with almost 49 percent of the vote. Morales’s populist platform and economic reforms, it would seem, have won over even his most fervent critics.

For Jaime Aparicio Otero, a former Bolivian ambassador to the United States, this shift is not that innocuous. He points out that while Morales may have made gains in Santa Cruz, his percent of the popular vote actually went down in La Paz—the seat of the Bolivian government and a hotspot of indigenous activism—from over 80 percent in the 2009 election to just under 70 percent this year. If Morales has won over Santa Cruz, Aparicio said, it is not because of his push for indigenous rights. It is because of power and money.

“Morales realized he could avoid having an opposition if he negotiated with these economically powerful people [in Santa Cruz],” Aparicio told me. “They work in all these private sectors, all kinds of people, from smugglers to bankers, making a lot of money. So [his vice president] went to them and said, ‘Continue doing your business, but don’t get involved in politics. You choose. You do money or you do politics.’”

The businesspeople, Aparicio says, chose money.

“Now if you put the opposition in jail or exile them or do whatever you want, nobody cares,” Aparicio said. “People care about their lives and their salaries, so nobody complains about the lack of liberties or freedom of expression. That’s the reality. [Morales’s government is] using the indigenous label to do things that are authoritarian. They are using the state to give handouts to people that make them dependent on the state.”

But those handouts are exactly what have improved the indigenous people’s quality of life. Both through Morales’s own policies— nationalizing natural resources and imposing high taxes on foreign companies—and a natural economic boom, Bolivia’s finances have never looked better: the size of Bolivia’s economy has tripled under Morales. And the indigenous people are feeling the direct benefits.

Under Morales, the government has redistributed over 134 million acres of land; indigenous and peasant populations now collectively own one-third of all regularized land in the country. A booming consumer economy has led supermarket sales to grow sixfold since Morales took office; restaurant sales have grown nearly 700 percent. And after Morales nationalized hydrocarbons in 2006, he announced that the government had a generous budget surplus, which was going to be put toward “bonos,” or cash handouts, to schoolchildren, pregnant women, and the rural poor—who are almost exclusively indigenous.

Put simply, “government investment in rural areas…is the highest it has ever been,” said Linda Farthing, author of three books about Bolivia’s recent development.

For all of Morales’s moves to empower indigenous people—from inviting traditional shamans to his inauguration to incorporating indigenous cosmologies into educational systems—the real root of his success is money, money, money. Bolivia’s economy is booming, and Morales has been lucky enough to ride the wave.

“Bolivia is living in a party now,” Aparicio said. “But what will happen when the party is over?”


For a glimpse of what might happen when the party ends, Aparicio points to the TIPNIS highway controversy. He calls it proof that Morales is only the indigenous champion he claims to be when it suits his political purposes.

In 2011, Morales held an inauguration ceremony in the tropical town of Villa Tunari to celebrate the beginning of construction on the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos Highway. The Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos Highway—or the TIPNIS highway as it has come to be known—is a project that seeks to connect the agricultural region of Beni with the commercial department of Cochabamba. It aims to resolve Bolivia’s dramatically underdeveloped internal transportation system and is highly popular among coca growers and businesspeople, who see it as a means of lowering transport costs in Bolivia’s booming export economy. The 135-mile TIPNIS highway would allow for unprecedented economic development and reduce a 15-hour drive to just one hour.

It would also cut straight through the heart of the Bolivian Amazon and the home of the TIPNIS indigenous people.

Evo Morales' proposed TIPNIS Highway would cut straight through the heart of a vast national park, home to three small indigenous groups.
Evo Morales’ proposed TIPNIS Highway would cut straight through the heart of a vast national park, home to three small indigenous groups.

TIPNIS, an acronym for the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, is a vast national park in the center of Bolivia. It is populated by three small indigenous groups—the Tsimané, the Yuracaré, and the Mojeño-Trinitario—who, unlike the majority Quechua and Aymara, do not have a history of political activism and influence.

The TIPNIS people see the planned highway as the precursor to deforestation, resource exploitation, and, inevitably, an end to their way of life.

The TIPNIS peoples’ opposition culminated in August 2011, when nearly 2000 activists marched on foot from Beni all the way to the governmental palace in La Paz—a 375-mile trek that took over a month.

Halfway, they were met by the police.

Some 500 Bolivian police officers fired rubber bullets and unleashed tear gas on the protesters, children and pregnant women among them. The officers loaded the marchers into trucks and buses, and even tried to force some of them onto airplanes to be flown back to TIPNIS.

Still, the marchers persisted. When they finally reached La Paz, they were met by tens of thousands of supporters, who lined the streets in a carnival-like show of solidarity. The citizens of La Paz waved flags and held posters, shouting, “Bievenidos! Welcome!” Morales claimed no responsibility for the police crackdown and announced that he was canceling plans for the highway’s construction.

Over the past few years, however, Morales has repeatedly vacillated between bringing the plans back to life and canceling them again. His government has engaged in various consultations and meetings with the TIPNIS people, and in 2012, he announced that the plans were on hold until extreme poverty was successfully eliminated from the area. He committed $14 million over the next three years for investment in basic services and sustainable development. He has stated that at the end of the three years, he will invite an international body to evaluate whether he has met his goals. For many indigenous leaders, however, the anti-poverty measures are just a facade to appease international opinion before Morales proceeds with his plans.

In many ways, Morales’s stated goal of protecting the indigenous way of life is fundamentally at odds with the source of his widespread popularity: a financial boom based on a successful extractive economy. To reconcile the two, Farthing said, is “extremely difficult if not close to impossible.”

The situation also highlights an underlying tension behind Morales’s pro-indigenous rhetoric. While Morales supports groups like the Quechua or Aymara whose goals have largely aligned with his own, his government has not tolerated political autonomy on the part of other indigenous movements, explained Sinclair Thomson, a history professor at New York University who lived in Bolivia for several years. When Morales found that he could not co-opt certain indigenous groups whose viewpoints differed from his, “the government resorted to hardline tactics…used by military and neoliberal governments that [Morales’s party] has replicated for purposes of state control,” Thomson told me.

For Aparicio, the crisis simply reveals Morales’s true intentions.

“Even though Morales has been speaking in the UN about pachamama, talking about indigenous rights and signing all the declarations about indigenous rights, the moment he could prove that he believed in that, he did exactly the opposite,” Aparicio said.


On my very last night in Bolivia, a few locals I had befriended suggested that I attend a celebration of the solsticio. The winter solstice is the Aymara new year, and every year thousands of Bolivians and tourists alike flock to the Puerta del Sol, or Door of the Sun, outside of La Paz to watch the sunrise, make offerings, and celebrate a new agricultural year. I couldn’t make it all the way to La Paz, but at three in the morning two friends and I took a taxi to a town an hour away to participate in the festivities.

Somehow we must have gotten the wrong address. Instead of a raucous crowd of people waiting to usher in the new year, we found a quiet temple with two old women chewing coca leaves to pass the time. The temple looked just like a church, topped with a cross, filled with flickering candles, but none of the portraits hanging on the walls referenced Jesus. Instead, they honored unfamiliar names and stories. That sanctuary was a meeting of the two worlds within Bolivia, a melding of European influence and indigenous tradition.

As sunrise neared, more and more people gathered. Some came by car, bringing sleeping bags and blankets. Others arrived on foot. An hour before sunrise, an elderly man called everyone together around a campfire. He spoke for a long time, about tradition and blessings and a new year. Two men brought a llama to be sacrificed. Finally, as the sun started creeping over the mountains, we stood in silence in the cold winter air, watching light spread over pachamama, Mother Earth.

Maybe Gabriela is right when she says it was inevitable that an indigenous president would come to power in Bolivia. Or maybe Morales is special—a revolutionary, charismatic leader who was able to capitalize on social unrest at the right place and time. Maybe Morales does have the people’s best interests in mind and will be able to reconcile economic growth with indigenous tradition. Maybe he only cares about power. For now, it may seem that it doesn’t matter; if the indigenous people are benefiting, are Morales’s true intentions important? To answer that question, we must look to what transpires when, as Aparicio says, “the party ends.” Thousands of the country’s indigenous have already seen what happens when their rights and traditions no longer align with Morales’s vision of a booming Bolivia—and for them, the answer to that question matters very much. Either way, that wintry morning in a town whose name I don’t remember sent a clear message: the Bolivian indigenous people are here to stay. Juntos vamos bien para vivir bien.

Vivian Wang ’17 is an English major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at