LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — The fiery coca growers' union leader who rode discontent over his predecessor's pro-business policies to Bolivia's presidency is suddenly grappling with a sharp drop in popularity.
Ironically, Evo Morales' troubles are related to his handling of the economy.
The very "originarios," or native peoples, who ensured the re-election of Bolivia's first indigenous leader a year ago with 64 percent of the vote are now echoing the complaints of his longtime critics: Morales has bungled the economy, alienated foreign investors and favored political cronies over technocrats, they say.
"The president thought that by putting ponchos and polleras (the petticoat-layered skirts indigenous women favor) in his Cabinet the country would run better, but that's not the case," Jimena Mendoza, 40, said as she queued up recently for sugar at a state-run store.
In an Ipsos poll released earlier this month, Morales' approval rating plummeted to 36 percent — a low point after five years in power. The plunge followed Morales' attempt to lift subsidies on gasoline, sugar and flour just after Christmas. In response, protesters had flooded into the streets, hurling stones at the headquarters of unions closely allied with the president and stoking street bonfires with portraits of him.
Morales backed down — the 78 percent gas price increase was simply untenable. But the damage was done, as reflected in the poll of 1,080 people in four cities Jan. 6-11 that had a 3 percentage point error margin.
The protest's epicenter was El Alto, the teeming La Paz satellite that is a magnet for indigenous poor migrants from the countryside.
In 2003, El Alto was the locus of a popular uprising that toppled then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada after troops killed at least 63 people. That unrest ignited over what many considered the government's planned fire sale of Bolivian natural gas to the United States and Chile.
The irony of December's protests was not lost on anyone: Morales was now asking people in a country with a per capita annual income of $1,700 to absorb — overnight — hefty price increases for gasoline, sugar and flour.
Morales apologized, but few heads rolled.
He replaced three of his 20 ministers last weekend. What remains is largely what he began with: loyalists representing constituencies including organized labor and indigenous confederations.
"I've only been honest with the people and I don't care about my popularity but instead about taking care of the interests of the country," he told reporters.
He also announced a new strategy: He would remove subsidies, but gradually.
On Jan. 15, Morales raised sugar prices by 23 percent, fanning inflationary fears in a country that was ravaged by hyperinflation in the 1980s.
Bolivians want to know how it is that this country of 10 million can't feed itself despite being rich in arable land.
"We feel defrauded. How can it be possible that in this city with four sugar mills there's no sugar?" retiree Hugo Salvatierra remarked to Erbol radio in the eastern lowland city of Santa Cruz. He said he'd stood in line for three hours to buy 8.8 pounds (4 kilos) of sugar.