By Nicholas Casey
President Evo Morales of Bolivia is seeking a fourth term, going against principles of the country’s indigenous people. (Freddy Zarco/Bolivian Presidency)
CARMEN DEL EMERO, Bolivia — In this indigenous village in Bolivia, the rule has been the same for generations: Leaders can be re-elected only once. After that, they must hand power to someone else.
So it came as a shock to Nelo Yarari, the leader of Carmen del Emero, a community of indigenous Tacana people in the Bolivian Amazon, when President Evo Morales said he would be running for a fourth term next month.
Bolivia’s Constitution barred him from doing so, and Mr. Morales lost a referendum two years ago that would have allowed him to run again. He leaned on the courts, which threw out the term limits.
One thing especially stung for Mr. Yarari: As Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, Mr. Morales had vowed to champion native values.
In seeking yet another term, Mr. Morales was violating a basic tenet of the Tacanas, power sharing. He was also pushing for oil and gas extraction in protected areas and proposing hydroelectric dams that would displace native communities. “We don’t consider him indigenous here,” Mr. Yarari said. “He has turned his back on us.”
A broader concern in Latin America is that threats to democracy are mounting.
In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro now rules as an autocrat, extending his own term this year in an election widely seen as rigged. More than 300 people in Nicaragua have been killed in protests to end President Daniel Ortega’s tenure.
And in Mr. Morales’s support for these crackdowns, some see an autocratic streak.
Mr. Morales, the former leader of a coca-growers union, was first elected in 2005 with broad support from the country’s indigenous majority, and reoriented policies in a way not seen since Bolivia was conquered by the Spanish.
At first, many in Carmen del Emero — more than 400 kilometers north of the capital — saw Mr. Morales as the antithesis to a long chain of leaders who did not represent their interests.
Mr. Morales preached inclusion of indigenous groups, cut ties to American coca-eradication programs that stung farmers and used the state’s wealth to cut the poverty rate in half by 2012.
But the Uru, a fishing people on the Bolivian plateau, watched their lake vanish under Mr. Morales’s watch because of climate change and the government’s diversion of water for large farms.
The Tacanas have sparred for years with Mr. Morales, who dusted off a plan to build a hydroelectric dam near Madidi National Park, an area many of the group call home.
The dams would flood regions around the national park in Bolivia’s northwest, considered one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.
The Tacanas had spent years fighting the project, and were taken aback when Mr. Morales began pushing for it.
The dam project would aim to supply electricity to Brazil, but not to Amazonian villages in the area. That angered Triniti Tayo Cori, a leader of the Tsimané people.
“Through our own effort we’ve gotten light to our town: We bought a generator, we bought cables, we bought light bulbs,” Mr. Tayo Cori said.
Yerko Ilijic, a Bolivian lawyer, said Mr. Morales was making his calculations based on votes: Small groups like the Tacanas and Tsimané aren’t a priority. “When you’re a politician, who do you negotiate with?” Mr. Ilijic asked. “You negotiate with whoever has the biggest numbers.”
Rodrigo Quinallata, an activist, campaigned against allowing Mr. Morales more terms. “We have to admit that in the end someone who is wearing a poncho can be as corrupt as someone who is wearing a tie,” he said.