Support on show as Bolivia road protesters reach La Paz

Indigenous protesters enter La Paz on 19 October The marchers are calling for the road project to be scrapped

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"I've never seen anything like this," said Douglas Ormachea as he watched indigenous protesters enter La Paz at the end of a two-month march from Bolivia's Amazon lowlands.

"Not even the Pope got such a reception when he came to Bolivia."

Mr Ormachea was among the crowds of cheering people lining the streets of La Paz, the seat of government, as the marchers paraded like heroes at the end of their 65-day trek.

The group of some 1,000 people set out on the walk to highlight their opposition to the construction of a controversial road through a rainforest reserve known as Tipnis.

President Evo Morales's government argues that the road will benefit communities throughout the country.

The planned road has sharply divided opinion in Bolivia and there have been some demonstrations in support of the project.

But many of those out on the streets of La Paz were firmly behind the indigenous campaigners - and voicing criticism of the president.

"He should be more humble and he should look after his people," said Marisol Loza.

People welcome the marchers as the enter La Paz There was a warm welcome from many residents of La Paz

Next to her, another La Paz resident Leila Vera held a banner that read "La Paz welcomes you".

"He should thank God that we still have so much beauty in the Amazon," she said. "We should look after it and preserve it."

Political analyst Jorge Lazarte said: "The government is having its worst political moment.

"For more than a year, it has seen a process of continuous decline of popular support, because it has slowly broken its relations with the social movements that brought it to power."

Mr Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, was elected on the promise to give a greater say to the country's indigenous majority.

"This government has never before been so distant from its people," said Mr Lazarte.

Vote setback

The president's popularity has been falling since December, after he tried to raise fuel prices by up to 80%.

It was just days before the New Year, and Bolivians took to the streets in huge numbers, forcing the government to backtrack on its plan.

But support for the president, who was re-elected in 2009 with 64% of the votes, never fully recovered.

On Sunday, he suffered what local media called a "major defeat" in nationwide judicial elections.

Aerial view of Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park in Bolivia Tipnis is home to an extraordinary wealth of plant and animal species

Two out of three voters invalidated their ballot in what was Mr Morales's first electoral setback.

The president had made the polls a key issue of his socialist agenda, and dismissed the results saying that "those who tried to boycott these elections have failed".

But there was no smile on his face when he gave a news conference after exit polls came out. His speech was unusually brief - lasting about four minutes - and no questions from reporters were allowed.

For Mr Lazarte, the road conflict has been one of the most damaging issues for the embattled president.

"It's one of the most delicate for the government because it has to do with its own political [and indigenous] identity.

"When the president could have backtracked [on the highway], he did not. But to reach an agreement with the marchers now, it seems too late, because it will show weakness."

Any decision, in Mr Lazarte's view, will hurt the government.

High spirits

However, Martin Sivak, who wrote a biography of Mr Morales entitled The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia, does not think the road row will bring about the end of his presidency.

Evo Morales in photo from 16 October Evo Morales has seen his popularity dented in recent months

"While many opposition politicians have declared the start of the funeral of the government, Evo Morales still has some political resources: a stable economy and no adversary with national weight," he said.

The opposition remains fragmented in Bolivia, and many analysts agree that, if presidential elections were to take place today - they are due in 2014 - Mr Morales would still win.

But Mr Sivak says the Morales administration must address the way it deals with social movements, especially those highly critical of government policy.

Several hundred protesters are camping out in Plaza Murillo, the presidential square, helped by donations of clothes and warm food from local people.

Spirits remain high among the protesters.

"We are going to stay here until the president decides to meet us," said Rafael Quispe, one of the leaders.

Mr Morales has offered talks on the issue and ordered a temporary halt to the road-building.

But Mr Quispe was clear that the protesters would not return home empty-handed.

They would remain in La Paz, he said, until the government scrapped the construction project altogether.


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