Can Morales survive Bolivia’s social unrest?

Source: Al Jazeera, Inside Story Americas

Police protests and anger among indigenous groups piles the pressure on Latin America’s first indigenous president.

It was a bitter dispute which saw hundreds of Bolivian police officers protest outside the presidential palace in a demand for higher wages.

I don’t see it [the police strike] as a coup in the making. I see it as a labour action. The police were disappointed with their low level of salaries relative to some of their peers. They were also disappointed with the very harsh disciplinary code that was being forced through.”

– Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas

And amid the acrimony, Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, while thanking his supporters, also accused the strikers of setting the stage for an attempted coup.

“Many thanks to all of you for your rapid reflection and condemnation of this attempt to carry out a coup. We will document on another day how they were trying to organise it and when they can’t do it, they say there was no attempt to do a coup. They are experts at lying and causing confusion but they are not going to fool us with the lies brothers and sisters,” he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, after a week of strikes, a deal seemed to have been reached, bringing officers’ base pay roughly in line with other public sector employees.

But it is not the end of Morales’ problems.

Also on Wednesday, more than 1,000 indigenous protesters planned to complete a 600-kilometre march on the capital, La Paz, as part of a long-running dispute over a planned highway through their ancestral homeland.

If you don’t pay them [the police] enough they could be hired by organised crime or other groups, so it’s the boomerang of the security assistance that we [the US] provide that create these institutions which become very problematic in the long run, when they boomerang back.”

– Sanho Tree, a Latin America security analyst

The march follows months of social unrest in the country – from miners, doctors and others frustrated at the low standard of living.

So, what does it mean for Morales, Latin America’s first indigenous president, who overwhelmingly won two elections on a platform of transforming the fortunes of the poorest of South America’s worst-off country?

Pablo Solon, who served under Morales as Bolivia’s UN ambassador, recently wrote an open letter to the president regarding the Amazon highway protesters, urging him to do more for indigenous groups.

He told Al Jazeera: “There has been some kind of contradiction between what we wanted to do and what we have really achieved … inside the Bolivian government there are two tendencies, one that says we should follow the traditional development model and the other that says we should follow a new paradigm … we call it ‘living well’, not only in harmony between humans but between humans and nature.”

Inside Story Americas asks: How damaging to Morales are the protests in Bolivia?

Joining presenter Anand Naidoo to discuss this are guests: Kathryn Ledebur, the executive director of the Andean Information Network; Sanho Tree, a Latin America security analyst from the Institute for Policy Studies; and Eric Farnsworth, the vice-president of the Council of the Americas.

“It’s very complicated when you talk about Morales’ role and responsibility or the efforts that he makes for indigenous people because who is an indigenous person in Bolivia? So a Morales programme to benefit indigenous people is not very straightforward.” – Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network