Posted on Mon, Aug. 11, 2008
last updated: August 11, 2008 06:56:17 PM
LA PAZ, Bolivia — A fundamental clash between the socialist and indigenous peoples of the Andean region of Bolivia and the more entrepreneurial and racially mixed residents of the eastern lowlands paralyzed this country in 2008, and that divide seems likely to harden in the wake of Sunday's national referendum. President Evo Morales told reporters on Monday that he had won a mandate after 63 percent of Bolivians voted for him to remain in office, including an astounding 85 percent of rural voters. Asked whether he might offer concessions to his opponents, Morales instead complained that they have shown little interest in trying to bridge differences. "My interest is social justice and equality for the people," Morales said, accusing opposition leaders of pursuing narrower interests. Morales said he would push for a new constitution that will be opposed by his powerful foes, the governors of the four states in eastern Bolivia known as the "half moon" for the states' geographic shape. Voters in those four states ratified their governors, who have been pushing for greater autonomy from the dictates of Morales, the socialist president. At issue is who will control the country's huge natural gas reserves in the east _ the reserves are the second largest in Latin America _ and who will decide the fate of large tracts of farmland in the east that Morales wants to seize and give to indigenous supporters. The new constitution that Morales wants to write would allow him to seek re-election for another term, would codify greater government control over the economy and would establish 37 indigenous "nations" within Bolivia for the country's different indigenous people. The constitution would consolidate the changes he has already made. Morales has nationalized foreign companies, established pensions for the elderly and allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro _ all in the name of giving the poor, indigenous majority a greater share of the political and economic pie. Sixty percent of Bolivians live on $2 a day or less. Morales, who herded sheep as a boy, is the first self-identified indigenous president in the 183-year history of Bolivia. Former President Jorge Quiroga, who lost the 2005 election to Morales, said the president "wants to apply the Chavez recipe for a new constitution that would allow him to seize power for a long time, centralize control over the economy and destroy long-term institutions." Quiroga said he was "skeptically optimistic" that Morales would heed the call from the "half moon" states and give them a greater say over local issues. The leader of the opposition is Ruben Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz, where the country's most powerful financial and industrial interests are concentrated. Costas won 66 percent of the vote on Sunday. That evening, he spoke at a plaza full of supporters waving the green- and white-striped flags of Santa Cruz, which is both a city and a state. Morales won only 40 percent of the vote in Santa Cruz. Costas called Morales "totalitarian" and said Bolivia needs to say "no to the big foreign monkeys," an obvious racial slur aimed at Chavez. In another sign of the intransigence, three days before the referendum, the mayor of Santa Cruz, Percy Fernandez, called for a military coup to oust Morales. "I don't see any signs of compromise from the half moon," said George Gray, a La Paz-based political analyst. "It seems that both sides have hardened their positions." Morales' supporters were shrugging off the problems of the tough road ahead to savor Sunday's triumph. "Evo's making progress by doing the things that voters want," said Mark Weisbrodt, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research based in Washington, D.C. "Otherwise they wouldn't have given him such an overwhelming mandate."
The referendum asked voters whether Morales and eight of the country's nine governors should be recalled. The pro-Morales governor of Oruro lost as did the anti-Morales governors of La Paz and Cochabamba. Cochabamba's governor, Manfred Reyes, went to his office on Monday, saying that the referendum was illegal and that he wasn't stepping down. Government supporters massed outside the governor's office in Cochabamba's picturesque main square but didn't try to force Reyes from office, as they had threatened to do.