Analyst Karen Hooper examines the protests behind a planned road through a Bolivian nature reserve, and why Brazil is the primary financier of the project.
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Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva visited Bolivia recently and met with Bolivian President Evo Morales. The goal of Lula’s visit was to meet with Morales and discuss the indigenous protests over a Brazilian funded road connecting Trinidad, Beni, to Cochabamba up in the Bolivian Mountains. The dispute highlights the fragmentation of Morales’ political base and is an opportunity for Brazil to expand its political influence in Bolivia. The road in question will be built from the northeast corner of Bolivia to the border with Chile and its northern most section. The goal of the road is to connect Brazil, via a much more efficient transportation network, to ports in Chile. The total cost is expected to be $415 million with Brazil funding 80 percent of the tab. The remainder will come from Bolivian coffers. The most controversial section of the road runs through the Tipnis natural area. The indigenous peoples who live in that area are guaranteed by constitutional right to be able to govern the area independently of the central government. The controversy at this point, is that the people do not want the road to run through the area and are concerned that it will yield opportunities for loggers and illegal coca growth in the natural reserve. This confrontation between Morales and the indigenous community is indicative of a greater fragmentation of Morales’ base. At the beginning of Morales’ presidency he experienced a great deal of difficulty with protests in the lowlands of the country, as his policies aggravated the traditional economic elite. At this point in time, those controversies have settled, and Morales is experiencing majority of pushback from his political base, which are the indigenous peoples and the Cocaleros of Bolivia. Rhetorically, Morales has used the United States as a scapegoat for this fragmentation. He has accused in this instance the USAID of sparking the protests. He has threatened to expel the USAID from Bolivia just as he expelled the DEA and the U.S. ambassador in previous times of unrest. Ultimately, this conflict with the United States is a sideshow, and the most important international actor in this instance is Brazil. Lula's visit to Bolivia in this instance shows us the importance that Bolivia has as a partner to Brazil, as Brazil seeks to expand its influence throughout the continent and expand its trade networks around the world. The road from Brazil to Chile will allow Brazil to more easily ship goods to the Pacific Ocean, and there to international markets, whereas now it takes sixteen hours to travel from Trinidad to Cochabamba. The new road that runs through the natural reserve would take only four hours. Lula’s visit to Bolivia not only emphasizes the importance of the infrastructure between Brazil and Chile, but it also emphasizes how much Brazil is increasing its diplomatic outreach in the region as a way of ensuring that its economic and political interests are secured.