6 Bolivian Leaders Cut Ties With Morales

Bolivian President Evo Morales, center, shown in La Paz, has sparked protests with efforts to rewrite the constitution and redistribute land.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, center, shown in La Paz, has sparked protests with efforts to rewrite the constitution and redistribute land. (By Juan Karita -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

BUENOS AIRES, Nov. 20 -- Six of Bolivia's nine regional governors have severed communications with President Evo Morales's government in recent days, intensifying protests against the ruling party's efforts to rewrite the constitution, implement a controversial land reform policy and limit the regional governments' powers.

The governors represent areas where most of the country's economic strength is concentrated, including the agriculturally rich eastern lowlands and the urban centers of La Paz and Cochabamba.

A statement signed by the governors and released Sunday indicated that they would "break relations with the executive branch and not answer to any calls made by the president, so long as the governmental trend of wounding the law and destabilizing authorities elected by popular vote is not modified."

This week, street protests are planned in the lowland eastern city of Santa Cruz. The city is the epicenter of a political autonomy movement that seeks more decision-making power for local authorities and opposes Morales's plan to redistribute to the poor land that the state deems unproductive. Morales angered the region's leaders by advocating putting the governors under congressional oversight and giving himself the power to fire them if they do not operate transparently or honestly.

"The president is trying to get more and more power, and his party isn't debating issues at all -- they just want to change the constitution so that it says whatever they want it to say," said Eduardo Nostas, who represents an agricultural producers' organization in Santa Cruz that is helping to lead the protests. "I personally think this is an extremely uncertain time for Bolivia, and the principal reason is that the president is constantly seeking out confrontation."

Morales's party -- the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS -- this year spearheaded the creation of a 255-member assembly to strengthen rights for the country's indigenous majority by rewriting the constitution. MAS party members were elected to 137 of the seats, not enough for the two-thirds majority necessary to make constitutional changes. But last week, members changed the assembly rules so that a simple majority is sufficient to draft individual changes to the constitution, although passage of the complete document would still require a two-thirds vote.

Also last week, Bolivia's House of Representatives approved Morales's land reform bill and sent it to the Senate, where opposition party members hold a slight majority. Morales, who was elected last year after leading protests against government fuel policies that had helped oust two presidents since 2003, said most of the country supported the bill and warned Senate members that social unrest would result if they defied the public's will and did not ratify his changes to the land laws.

"The people will rise up to modify those norms by force, in benefit of the majority," Morales said during a news conference, according to the Associated Press.

Morales was inaugurated in January and quickly announced a series of reforms, including partial nationalization of the country's natural gas resources and creation of the constituent assembly -- a key demand of indigenous supporters who view Morales, of Aymara Indian heritage, as an advocate.

Jim Shultz, director of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center, said he believes that the governors' protests are strategic reactions to Morales's stated goal of shifting power away from traditional elites and toward wider swaths of the population.

"Bolivia is going through a truly historical transfer of who has the power in this country, and the stakes are so high that every inch of political territory is fought over," Shultz said. "Why create a crisis over whether little bits and pieces of the constitution require two-thirds or a majority vote? It's because this is all part of a much bigger dance for power in this country."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company