Bolivians head to polls Sunday with divisions deepening

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia — Three governors have stopped eating to protest the president, and Marxist teachers have been blocking streets throughout Bolivia in the run-up to a plebiscite Sunday that was supposed to strengthen the country's democracy.

Instead, Bolivians will decide whether to recall President Evo Morales and the country's governors amid a deepening climate of political and geographic polarization.

The divisions have become so pronounced that in the past week Morales had to scrub campaign trips to five of Bolivia's nine states to avoid violent protests against him.

Bolivia is South America's poorest country, with only 9 million residents and with an economic output equal to that of Alaska.

Sunday's vote is attracting outsized attention, however, because Morales is the country's first self-proclaimed indigenous president, he's formed a close alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro and Bolivia is the third biggest producer of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine.

The situation is especially tense in Cochabamba, which is both a city and a state. The governor, Manfred Reyes, has said he won't leave office if voters recall him. Reyes told McClatchy he thinks that the referendum is illegal because the rules are stacked in Morales' favor.

The president's supporters say they'll physically eject Reyes if necessary, even if that spills blood. Clashes in the past week already have killed two people and injured several dozen.

"Bolivia is in a free fall," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian who's a professor at Florida International University, in Miami.

Polls indicate that Morales won't be recalled, and neither will the most powerful governors opposed to him. This result, Gamarra said, would fortify the political extremes and leave a dwindling number of Bolivians in the center.

Morales would claim a mandate to seek a new constitution later this year that would allow him extend his tenure in power, Gamarra said. Opponents would employ all means to try to block him.

"If Evo and the (governors) win big, you would have an extension of the status quo that will lead to more confrontation," Gamarra said.

Bolivia has a long history of political instability, with 106 presidents during its 183-year history. Violent street protests led in part by Morales forced two of his three most recent predecessors to resign.

Many people hoped that Morales' historic election in 2005 would calm the waters. But he's typically chosen confrontation over negotiation in carrying out what he calls a "democratic revolution." He wants to give political and economic power to the country's indigenous majority at the expense of the descendents of Spanish colonizers, who've traditionally governed the country and owned the biggest companies.

Morales' moves have exacerbated differences between La Paz and rural Andean communities in the west — which favor greater state control over the economy — and the more entrepreneurial-minded lowland communities in the east.

Four eastern Bolivian states voted this year to have greater autonomy from the central government in La Paz. The practical effect of the votes is unclear, and Morales denounced them as illegal. But they succeeded in stalling his efforts to remake Bolivia.

Morales pushed for the recall elections to regain political momentum, and wrote rules that favored himself.

The president would appoint replacements for any governors who are recalled. If voters recall Morales, however, he'd serve another six months before another presidential election would be held. The rules don't say clearly whether he could run for office again.

The vote needed for a recall depends on the percentage received in the last election. Recalling Morales would require at least 53.5 percent of the vote — the percentage he received in his 2005 election — while the governors, who were elected with smaller percentages, could be recalled with anywhere from 38 percent to 48 percent of the vote.

"Where else have you seen these kinds of rules?" Reyes asked in an interview. "Only in Bolivia."

Reyes warned that violence was probable, remembering that the debate over whether Cochabamba should seek greater autonomy 18 months ago led to pitched street battles that left three dead. The government's supporters burned part of the governor's office.

"People are very agitated now," Reyes said. "There's a lot of hate on both sides. It's a very serious situation."

"Bolivia marks its 183rd birthday in the midst of chaos," a headline in Cochabamba's Los Tiempos newspaper read Wednesday, independence day.

A day later, teachers blocked traffic as they marched through Cochabamba to protest Morales' failure to increase pensions.

"We're going to adopt drastic measures if he doesn't listen to us," said Abraham Iriarte, a local teachers union leader, as other protesters set off nerve-jangling firecrackers known as "kill your mother-in-law."

Although protesters have limited Morales' campaign travels in the past week, he's saturating the airwaves with sophisticated ads lauding himself for raising pensions for the elderly and for "nationalizing" foreign-owned natural-gas companies, which meant a sharp increase in their taxes.

Morales' indigenous supporters think they finally have a president who looks, sounds and talks like them, said Jim Shultz, an American who runs a nonprofit group in Cochabamba that's sympathetic to the president's goals.

Polls give the president an approval rating of 55 percent to 60 percent.

"Evo's base," Shultz said, "remains very strong and very loyal."

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