WASHINGTON — A special envoy from the Organization of American States was in Bolivia on Friday to monitor potentially explosive developments in that country's battle over efforts to rewrite its constitution.
OAS officials said that Raul Alconada, a senior official of the organization's political department who arrived in the country late Thursday, hopes to meet with President Evo Morales to discuss OAS involvement in monitoring a yet-to-be-scheduled referendum on the new constitution.
Conservative governors in the country's eastern half have rejected the draft constitution and are poised to seek referendums of their own that would transfer to their provinces rights to levy taxes and set up police forces that traditionally have belonged only to Bolivia's central government.
The head of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, told McClatchy by phone that he'll travel to La Paz soon. Morales and Insulza agreed to the organization's involvement when the two met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, over the weekend. The governors also have asked the OAS to step in, OAS officials said.
''This is a positive step that will hopefully help defuse the tensions in Bolivia,'' said Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research center. He said the political debate was driven by hardliners on both sides and that outside involvement could give a more prominent role to moderate factions.
Dueling events Saturday will highlight the divisions that have gripped Bolivia since allies of Morales approved most of a proposed new constitution Dec. 9 in the mining town of Oruro.
On Saturday afternoon, four governors in the eastern Bolivian lowlands are scheduled to present autonomy statutes challenging the new constitution. Morales has called the statutes illegal and has put the country's armed forces on alert.
The president's indigenous supporters will hold their own celebration Saturday in the capital of La Paz to commemorate the approval of the new constitution, which grants the country's indigenous majority more protections and allows the president to be re-elected once, among other measures. The governors have declared the proposed charter illegal because government allies approved it without the presence of most opposition representatives during an all-night meeting convened just 18 hours in advance.
Whether violence is likely is unclear. The opposition-led city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in eastern Bolivia, which is the country's most populous, was calm Friday afternoon. Analysts noted that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is scheduled to visit Bolivia on Sunday and Monday, and that it's unlikely Morales would confront opponents during the visit.
Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian who heads the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, said political conflicts in Bolivia traditionally calmed during the Christmas holidays, but he warned that the intensity of racially driven politics is likely to resurrect the issue in January.
Morales is Bolivia's first indigenous president. His opponents in eastern Bolivia generally trace their ancestry to Europeans.
Bolivians must approve the constitution in a referendum that will be no later than next September.
The autonomy statute expected to pass in Santa Cruz, the country's second most populous province, also will require a referendum for final approval. The governors of three smaller provinces, Tarija, Pando and Beni, have indicated that they may skip such referendums and declare autonomy outright Saturday, but political analyst Fernando Mayorga said they also might follow Santa Cruz's lead.
Traditionally, Bolivia has been governed by an all-powerful central government that was responsible for nearly all government functions, including collecting taxes and providing police.
It wasn't until 2005 that provinces were allowed to elect their own governors. Since then, six of the country's nine governors have emerged as opposition leaders.
Last year, Bolivians rejected a national referendum that would have awarded provinces self-governing powers equivalent of those held by U.S. states. Voters in the four provinces that plan to advance autonomy statutes Saturday approved the referendum, however.
Daniel Castro, an opposition leader in Santa Cruz, said his province would follow the legal path to autonomy established by last year's referendum. "Everything will be done according to the law," Castro said. "This will be a real constitutional process that responds to the demands people have had for decades."
Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera countered that only the new national constitution, which grants regional as well as indigenous and local autonomies, could establish a legal path to more regional power.
(Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)