Violence erupts as Bolivia faces crisis over constitutional reform

SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA, Bolivia — A historic attempt to rewrite Bolivia's constitution has sparked epic street battles that have injured hundreds and killed three people across Bolivia in the past 10 days. More violence is expected.

A constitutional assembly drafting the new charter has until Dec. 14 to finish its work, but bitter disputes have stopped deliberations amid accusations from both sides of trickery and bad faith. Unless one side backs down, many expect the violence to intensify as activist shock troops settle their disputes in the street.

The battle pits leftist President Evo Morales, whose political base lies in the country's mountainous west, against an opposition that dominates eastern Bolivia's lowlands. The electoral defeat Sunday of a proposed new constitution in Venezuela isn't expected to ease tensions here.

On Monday, opposition leaders throughout Bolivia launched a hunger strike to protest what they said were the Morales government's authoritarian policies. The president, in an interview with a local newspaper, responded by accusing opposition leaders of acting like plantation owners who treated people like "their cattle."

"From both sides, there was maximum effort to boycott the meetings and escalate confrontation," said Orlando Cevallos, who represents the Free Bolivia Movement party at the constitutional assembly. "There's been too much insistence on exploiting differences and thinking only about political motives."

Bolivia's recent history is filled with political turmoil. Two of Morales' predecessors were ousted from office by street protests that Morales led. The current confrontation seems even more explosive.

"People are pretty nervous in a way they haven't been in a while," said Jim Shultz, the Bolivia-based executive director of the Democracy Center, a nonprofit social justice group. "Something has happened, and the two sides are raising the tensions."

The most recent conflicts exploded Nov. 23, when Morales' allies in the constitutional assembly responded to violent protests in Sucre, where the meetings had been held, by gathering in a military academy on the edge of town rather than in the assembly's permanent site downtown.

With opposition representatives boycotting the meeting, Morales' allies quickly approved a draft constitution that, among other measures, would allow the president to be re-elected repeatedly and would abolish the country's opposition-controlled Senate.

The proposed constitution also would grant more autonomy to the country's indigenous majority, municipalities and provinces; install a run-off system in presidential elections; and require government workers to speak an indigenous language.

The assembly's actions unleashed widespread protests in Sucre by university students and others, who've been demanding since August that the headquarters of the country's executive and legislative branches return to Sucre. Sucre, the country's capital until 1899, now hosts only the Supreme Court. Morales' allies had tabled the issue in August in response to protests in La Paz over the issue.

All weekend, protesters stormed through Sucre, attacking police stations and other government facilities and battling police. Three protesters died, and more than 300 were injured.

"This was a spontaneous burst of anger," said Antonio Jesus Mendoza, a 28-year-old student at the local state university who helped lead the protests. "We just want this issue to be debated."

Morales' supporters say business interests in the country's opposition-led east have used the capital issue to block a new constitution, which they said would redistribute power and resources.

Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, has promised to raise the status of indigenous Bolivians while repealing free-market reforms implemented during the 1990s. He's a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a fierce critic of the Bush administration.

"We are the great majority here, of people that, because of the destructive laws of the past, have been forced into the street," said Marta Vargas, the leader of a street vendors union who stood guard outside the military academy along with dozens of Morales supporters. "The opposition needs to understand that the great majority has woken up."

The turmoil continued after Bolivia's Congress, again without the participation of opposition legislators, voted last Tuesday to move the constitutional assembly from Sucre. Even more controversial, the Congress withdrew a share of hydrocarbon taxes that had gone to the country's nine provinces and diverted the money to a national pension program.

Six of the country's nine provinces responded by launching a general strike the next day that halted commercial activity throughout much of the country. Vigilante groups reportedly attacked vendors and others who kept their businesses open.

On Friday, street battles erupted in the Amazonian town of Cobija after opposition activists torched the house of Abraham Cuellar, a dissident replacement senator from the opposition National Unity party who'd refused to boycott the vote on the pension bill.

The fighting between pro-government and opposition activists left about a dozen people injured, and opposition forces briefly took two police officers hostage.

The political strife has taken a toll on Morales, who has lost the support of middle-class Bolivians and seen his approval ratings drop from more than 80 percent last year to about 50 percent now. It's also unified what had been a fragmented opposition seeking more autonomy from the central government.

"It's a failure for Morales that's deep, and it's a failure that's irreversible," Shultz said. "His long-term political power was based on holding this fragile base together, but he lost it, not because of his policies but because of his rhetoric, politics and manner."

The government has tried to calm passions by calling the opposition to a political dialogue, an appeal that opposition said it will reject until the government apologizes for the deaths in Sucre and nullifies the draft constitution. Morales has ruled out both actions.

Five opposition governors left for the United States on Monday to lodge complaints against Morales in the Organization of American States and the United Nations. They've also vowed not to recognize any constitution approved under current circumstances, a promise that some fear will lead to the country's break-up.

"We won't obey their laws," said Luis Nunez Ribera, the vice president of a powerful civic group in the opposition-led province of Santa Cruz. "It won't be our constitution, not when it's implemented this way."