Bolivia's divisive president
LA PAZ AND SANTA CRUZ-- ON THE high plane, the altiplano, surrounding La Paz, where the landscape is drawn in shades of dusty brown, new brick buildings stand out against the bright sky. Most are residences of a couple of storeys, but there are schools and clinics too. Some even boast cement balustrades, a flourish that echoes the Spanish colonial style. In a place where there are still adobe houses, and where a dowry may be measured partly in potatoes freeze-dried by nights spent above 4,000 metres (13,000 feet), this is a transformation.
President Evo Morales's government has shovelled money towards this part of the country ever since he was elected in 2005. But its time in power has been deeply divisive. Leopoldo Fernández, an opposition politician who is governor of the Pando province in the north, has been in prison for ten months without standing trial. In March Victor Hugo Cárdenas, an Aymara Indian who was once the country's vice-president, had his house attacked by a mob after opposing a new constitution proposed by the government.
Abroad, Mr Morales's government has revelled in the worsening of a number of its most important relationships. It expelled the United States' ambassador, along with his country's drug-enforcement agents. The accusations of American plots against the government had abated in anticipation of the new Obama administration, but business has now returned to usual, with President Morales expelling another American diplomat and lambasting the United States for refusing to renew a preferential trade agreement that is linked to Bolivia's performance on combating its drug barons. Bolivia's relations with Peru are awful and it has failed to convince Brazil to abandon plans for new hydro resources in the Amazon which will lessen its demand for Bolivia's gas.
In part this drive to isolate the country is deliberate. Many in the government dream of an economic autarky, powered by gas. Yet Mr Morales has accepted help from Venezuela, Cuba, Russia and Iran to further his "Movement to Socialism" (MAS) party. Venezuelan troops helped quell a rebellion centred on the airport at Santa Cruz in the east in 2007.
The antagonism between the government in the Andean city of La Paz and its opponents in Santa Cruz is Bolivia's clearest fault line. The conflict is usually described as pitting indigenous Bolivians in the uplands against descendants of Spain in the lowlands, or poor versus rich, but in fact Santa Cruz is ethnically mixed and average incomes in the two cities are comparable. Instead, the conflict is one of identity. The cruceños see themselves as pioneers who carved prosperity out of a pestilential jungle. Those who live on the altiplano are likely to view Mr Morales, the country's first indigenous president, with pride and to think that his government offers them a chance to get their share of revenues from the gasfields around Santa Cruz. By contrast, the cruceño elite fear losing their property, businesses and power.
This fear has increased since April, when government troops burst into the Hotel Las Américas in Santa Cruz, killed three men and arrested two others. The government claimed that this raid prevented an assassination attempt on Mr Morales. The hotel, all brown marble and glass with a few sad ferns in the atrium, seems an unlikely base for a terrorist cell, and the supposed terrorists were an unlikely bunch. That three of them were killed in their beds rather than spared for interrogation has aroused suspicion that they were in effect executed.
Whatever the case, a continuing investigation acts as a useful reminder to would-be rebels that they should stay in line. It has also destroyed any kind of moderate opposition. Carlos Dabdoub Arrien, one of the more constitutionally minded of the government's opponents in Santa Cruz, describes Mr Morales as an "indigenous fascist".
Those new brick houses on the altiplano are likely to keep Mr Morales in power in the elections due at the end of the year. He has handsomely increased government spending for the past three years, including much-needed increases in cash-transfer programmes. Some of these were inherited from the previous government, but they have been boosted and renamed. One programme is called "Bolivia changes, Evo delivers".
Maybe. But at least one pundit, reckoning that the voters are still unlikely to give Mr Morales the landslide he craves in the legislature, says Bolivia is suffering a classic bout of Latin American populism: personalised politics, mild paranoia, bad economic policy and a weak opposition.