To his supporters, Morales is a man looking out for the interests of Bolivia's indigenous majority, as opposed to the descendants of Europeans who overwhelmingly make up Bolivia's ruling class. His early support came from coca growers in Eterazama and other areas who are allowed to grow about 1,600 square feet of coca plants each. They say their coca is grown for such legal uses as indigenous medicines and teas, and they bristle at suggestions that it is used to make cocaine. Coca, long a traditional crop in Bolivia, has been drastically reduced since the 1990s, when U.S. authorities led an eradication campaign that was carried out by the Bolivian armed forces. At the time, Morales's outspoken criticism of eradication won him the support of many growers, but his base soon expanded to include other activist groups, from landless peasants to urban consumers fighting for public control of privatized local water systems.
Morales depicted all these fights as part of a single, larger crusade against privatization and the U.S.-promoted free market policies embraced by Bolivia in the 1980s. On the strength of that vision, he was elected to the Senate, and then under his leadership, the Movement Toward Socialism became the main opposition party in Congress two years ago.
Peasant activists rest along a blockaded highway near the city of Cochabamba. Such protest tactics have forced the government to reverse some U.S.-backed free market policies that protesters say hurt Bolivia's indigenous majority.
(Danilo Balderrama -- Reuters)
In Eterazama, a village of ramshackle tin-roofed shops, the main street is lined with flags and homemade signs pledging allegiance to Morales and MAS. But not everyone here is a fan. The Rev. Sperandio Martinelly, who works with peasants in the surrounding Chapare region, said Morales had evolved from a popular local champion to an intimidating national politician.
"More than anything, I think people participated in the roadblocks because they were forced," Martinelly said. "People have told me that if they don't show up once, MAS fines them. If they don't show up three times, they get their land taken away. This is what Evo is like now. He used to listen. Now he's like a dictator."
Politics of Water
From an altitude of 13,400 feet, the people of El Alto look down onto the adjacent city of La Paz, which sits in a crater-like bowl high in the Andes mountains. An estimated 800,000 people live in El Alto, and about 200,000 of them have neither water nor sewer service in their homes. The air is thin, but the indignation is palpable.
Luna Gregoria, a pregnant mother of seven, does have a water connection, but she has joined rallies against the French water company that took over the municipal utility in 1997 during Bolivia's drive toward privatization.
Gregoria and other residents said the company, partly owned by Suez, a French multinational, charged $450 to provide a water connection and drainage in a place where most people earn about $2 a day. Water rates since privatization have increased 35 percent.
Even at those prices, Gregoria said, the company provided a water connection only as far as the dirt street next to her house. Her husband had to build the pipe to an outdoor basin where she washes clothes, rinses vegetables and fills buckets for drinking.
"We want connections to the whole house," said Gregoria, 34. "We need a new company to do that, one that is controlled by the public, not a private company."
El Alto has become ground zero for the protest movement. Its location, near the international airport and above the center of government in central La Paz, gives residents the power to bring the country to its knees. The 2003 revolt that brought down Sanchez de Lozada's presidency was centered in El Alto; three years earlier, the water privatization issue had galvanized demonstrators in the city of Cochabamba and throughout the country.
At the time, protesters in Cochabamba rallied against Bechtel Corp., which had taken over that city's water utility. Led by a former shoemaker, Oscar Olivera, and bolstered by sympathetic coca farmers, they blocked the highways, forcing Bechtel out. After that, highway blockades became the preferred vehicle for change.
"Since the 'Water War' in 2000, people have realized that the only weapon we have is blockades," Olivera said in an interview in Cochabamba. "When we have used other kinds of mobilizations, the government has never listened."
Two months ago, residents of El Alto effectively shut down their city, forcing the government to promise to cancel the Suez utility contract. But Mesa, the beleaguered president, has complained that shutting out foreign investment is killing the economy and making Bolivia an international pariah. Some public opinion polls indicate that many Bolivians agree and believe the protests are making things worse.
"I think Mesa is being manipulated by the protesters up there," said Vicky Velasquez, a 20-year-old nursing student in La Paz, as she looked up toward El Alto.
Although the last few weeks have been relatively quiet, many residents of El Alto said frustrations could easily reach a boiling point again if the new water company does not offer an improvement. Morales and other protest leaders say they only seek to change policies, but some protesters, having discovered they have the power to topple elected leaders, said they would not be afraid to try it once more.
"We'll be out on the streets again," said Toribio Lopez Estaca, a neighborhood leader. "We'll take over any water facility we need to. We'll even throw out Carlos Mesa if necessary."