Bolivia once again engulfed by angry divisions

University students and professors march on Sept. 11 in Sucre, Bolivia, in support of moving the country's capital from La Paz to Sucre.
University students and professors march on Sept. 11 in Sucre, Bolivia, in support of moving the country's capital from La Paz to Sucre. Jack Chang / MCT

SUCRE, Bolivia — When Evo Morales became Bolivia's first indigenous president, he promised to heal years of bitter social divisions and give poor Bolivians, and especially the indigenous majority, a greater say in how the country was run.

Twenty months later, those high hopes have collapsed, Morales is struggling to stay in control and this landlocked country of 9 million people once again is teetering on the brink of disintegration.

Bloody street battles have broken out between Morales' indigenous supporters and his critics, while a swath of the country is seeking more autonomy from the central government.

The biggest blow has been the failure of Morales' most ambitious project, a year-long assembly that he called to rewrite the country's constitution.

After 13 months of meetings and political in-fighting, not a single article has been approved. The assembly's deadline has been extended to December, but few believe it will finish its work by then.

Morales' opponents have accused him of trying to use the assembly to consolidate power, and six of the country's nine governors have turned against Morales on key assembly issues. Groups demanding everything from more self-government to moving the country's capital are digging in for the fight.

"There's been no agreement because there's been no compromise by any of the two sides," said political analyst Fernando Mayorga. "In fact, there's been a radicalization on both sides that's dangerous."

So far, Morales is in no danger of being ousted by the kind of social protests that have claimed two Bolivian presidents since 2003. Last week, in fact, Morales made more history — he's now stayed in power longer than any of his four predecessors.

Yet the 47-year-old president, who heads the Movement to Socialism party, has fueled tensions with his often fiery rhetoric and hardball tactics, critics said.

He's sparked animosity by repeatedly denouncing what he says is the "oligarchy" that controls the country's eastern lowlands. Morales often accuses those provinces of refusing to share land and resources with poor indigenous people in the country's mountainous west.

"This is a . . . battle," Morales said at a rally last week in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba. "And here there are two things, comrades: The poor win or the rich win."

Morales also has polarized Bolivians by building close ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and harshly criticizing the United States. Last week, Morales established diplomatic relations with Iran, a Chavez ally, while imposing tough visa restrictions on U.S. visitors.

At Wednesday's rally, Morales handed more than $700,000 in aid to the city of Cochabamba, which he said was a gift from Venezuela, which has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Bolivia since Morales took office.

Opposition leaders said the Venezuelan aid was more than humanitarian. They accuse Morales of trying to build an authoritarian government like Chavez's and using the Venezuelan money to win popular support for those ends. As an example, they point to a proposal by Morales' party to do away with presidential term limits, similar to what Chavez has proposed in Venezuela.

"This is not a government that rules democratically," said Manfred Reyes Villa, the governor of Cochabamba province who has been one of Morales' harshest critics. "It doesn't respect any dissent and is fomenting divisions. The way this government is going, we could have a civil war."

Reyes Villa said such a war already has begun in the city of Cochabamba. In January, thousands of Morales loyalists seeking the governor's resignation clashed with Reyes Villa's supporters in street battles that left two dead and more than a hundred injured.

Morales ally and constituent-assembly member Roberto Segovia blamed the conflicts on what he said was an entrenched elite that wanted to block change.

"These people need to understand the reality of poverty in this country," Segovia said. "The poor have been kept out of power for so long, and now that we're in the government, they won't let us govern. They want to retake power and destroy the constituent assembly."

The latest, and possibly most potent, controversy erupted last month, when residents of the sleepy town of Sucre, where the constituent assembly is being held, demanded that the assembly relocate the country's capital here. Sucre had been the capital until 1899, but the seat of government was moved to La Paz after a civil war. Only the Supreme Court remained in Sucre.

Hunger strikes and street protests broke out, and violent battles between protesters and police closed down the city last week. Sucre residents were especially outraged when Morales' allies in the assembly, who make up a majority, voted to take the capital issue off the agenda, a vote a district court later declared illegal.

That escalating tension, which included attempts to break into the theater where the assembly meetings are held, prompted a month-long suspension of full assembly meetings while a compromise is worked out.

Sucre resident Nataly Andrade, however, said she saw no room for compromise in the capital battle.

"We'll fight for this to the very end," Andrade said. "We prefer to die before we give up."

That strident tone was echoed by Marta Vargas, one of about 7,000 Morales supporters who flocked to Sucre last week to "defend" the constituent assembly in an open-air rally. In July, more than a million people marched in the capital of La Paz promising to violently block moving the capital.

"The critics want to destroy democracy," Vargas said. "We are the majority, and the minority has to follow what the majority says. That's how democracy works."

The big challenge now is finding a way to pull the country back from the brink and restart dialogue between opposite camps, said Guillermo Richter, head constituent with the opposition Nationalist Revolutionary Movement party.

A gesture from Morales, who still enjoys approval ratings of more than 50 percent, would be key to such reconciliation, Richter said. So would steps by ordinary Bolivians to unite for the country's survival.

"There's a lot of pressure coming from society, and this attempt at change has opened the space for different groups," Richter said. "What we need now is agreement on what we want for Bolivia."

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