OAS steps in to help defuse Bolivian crisis

WASHINGTON — A major diplomatic effort is under way to ease tensions in Bolivia, where planned autonomy referendums by rich renegade provinces have stoked fears of political strife.

Dante Caputo, the head of the political unit of the Organization of American States, is meeting Monday with the governors of five provinces that have challenged Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales' push to pass a draft constitution. The text gives indigenous peoples more power and the state greater control of the economy, deepening regional and ethnic rifts in the Andean country.

The tensions have produced an unprecedented international reaction, with the foreign ministers of Brazil and Argentina visiting the country in recent days and the European Union and 16 other countries offering Friday to mediate, underscoring international concerns over the direction of the poor, landlocked nation, which sits on some of South America's largest natural gas reserves and is a major producer of cocaine.

OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said the hemispheric body is looking to create "a negotiating space" between the government and the "valid and important interests of regional autonomies."

"This is just the beginning," said Insulza of Caputo's trip. "We should not expect immediate results."

This is Caputo's second trip in less than two weeks. The Catholic Church has also been involved in mediation efforts.

The eastern Santa Cruz province plans to hold its autonomy referendum on May 4. If approved, the agriculture-rich region could collect taxes, create its own police force and make the local government responsible for redistributing lands, and not the central government as Morales wants. The provinces also want a bigger cut of the natural gas export revenues.

Morales, a socialist and coca union leader, swept into power in early 2006, vowing to rectify what he said was five centuries of exploitation of indigenous people. He says the Santa Cruz referendum is illegal, and his supporters are threatening roadblocks to prevent the voting.

Tensions boiled over late last year after a constitutional assembly approved a draft text without the presence of the opposition. Six of the country's nine provinces announced plans to defend their autonomy by holding referendums of their own, and three anti-government protesters have died.

The government and the opposition attempted to negotiate a deal in January, but the talks failed.

"I think the real threat is serious, serious violence," said Mark Schneider, with the Washington office of the International Crisis Group, a London-based organization that tracks international hot spots. "If they do vote for autonomy, they begin trying to implement it, it puts the national police and armed forces in a difficult situation if a court rules that to be unconstitutional. And enforcing it would set up a clash."