Four Killed In Protests Over Bolivian Constitution

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, Nov. 26 -- Violent protests over an attempt to rewrite Bolivia's constitution have led to the deaths of four people in recent days, throwing uncertainty on a project that President Evo Morales considers a cornerstone of his government.

Morales on Monday led a rally in La Paz of people who agree that a new political blueprint is needed to give the country's indigenous majority more political power. At the same time, opponents seeking more autonomy from his government launched counterdemonstrations in the cities of Santa Cruz and Tarija.

The 255-member constituent assembly responsible for drafting the new constitution has been locked in stalemate for more than a year. But this weekend, 154 of Morales's supporters convened in a military garrison outside the southern city of Sucre, site of the assembly, and approved the broad outlines of a new charter by a simple majority. The entire political opposition boycotted the vote.

Opposition protesters clashed with police, sparking riots that resulted in a storm of tossed rocks, tear gas and rubber bullets. Three protesters and one police officer were killed in the fighting. An estimated 130 were injured.

"There is a big part of the population that is strongly against how the constituent assembly is going, but unfortunately the government didn't get that message," said Gonzalo Ch¿vez, a political analyst at the Catholic University in La Paz. "Now the political discussion seems to be coming back to the streets."

Sucre was relatively calm on Monday, but the future of the assembly and its constitution remained in question. Although Morales's supporters were able to pass the broad outlines of a constitution with a simple majority, specific articles require two-thirds approval. Voters also would have to decide on the final draft in a national referendum.

The opposition contends that Morales is trying to follow the lead of his political ally, Venezuela's Hugo Ch¿vez, by changing the constitution to broaden his authority.

Morales dismissed those complaints. "Some oligarchic, conservative, neoliberal groups don't want the constitution to change," he said in a television address Sunday night, defending his decision to call a referendum on the constitution.

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