Four Bolivian States Challenge Morales

Backers of President Morales block a highway, above left, while opponents of Morales's policies celebrate a move for autonomy in the city of Santa Cruz. (Evan Abramson)
By Monte Reel and Evan Abramson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 16, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, Dec. 15 -- Four Bolivian states bitterly opposed to a proposed new constitution unveiled plans Saturday for greater self-rule, challenging President Evo Morales and sparking demonstrations throughout the country.

The state governments formally announced their intentions less than a week after a constitutional assembly backed by Morales approved a draft of a new constitution that would expand presidential powers.

Regional leaders in Santa Cruz, a state whose residents are overwhelmingly opposed to Morales's policies, began collecting signatures Saturday to hold a referendum on an "autonomy statute" -- a move followed by officials in the eastern states of Tarija, Beni and Pando.

The four states are considered the wealthiest in Bolivia, South America's poorest country. Their collective call for autonomy could give them much greater control over local tax revenue, land titles and security forces. Bolivia has nine states, called departments.

"We want the central government to hear our message of nonviolent autonomy," Roly Aguilera, the secretary general of Santa Cruz, said Saturday. "We will now be collecting signatures for a departmental referendum so we can approve the autonomy statute."

The statute would allow the state to control about two-thirds of the tax revenue it now hands over to the federal government. It would also give local authorities control over land titles -- a move aimed at countering Morales's proposals to break up large parcels of land and redistribute plots to landless farmers.

Morales's backers passed the proposed constitution Dec. 9 in a constitutional assembly boycotted by much of the country's political opposition. The document, if approved in a national referendum, would give the president more power and aims to distribute more resources to the country's poor, many of whom live in the western highlands that constitute Morales's political base.

Hundreds of hunger strikers who had camped in Santa Cruz's central plaza to protest the proposed constitution ended their strike to join thousands of others in the autonomy campaign. Graffiti in the plaza slammed Morales -- a former coca growers' union leader of Aymara Indian descent -- as an autocrat who is ruling the country on behalf of only its indigenous population.

"Evo is a dictator who wants to impose his unionist cocalero position on the whole country," said Geraldo Terata, 66, a retired train conductor who was among those supporting the Santa Cruz autonomy drive Saturday. "He's acting against the law."

Meanwhile, Morales's supporters blocked roads throughout the state, and thousands gathered in downtown La Paz, the capital, to celebrate the draft constitution.

Fearing violent conflicts between the opposing sides in Santa Cruz this weekend, Morales's government dispatched about 400 security forces to the region.

After the constitutional assembly passed an early version of its proposal in late November without opposition support, clashes in the city of Sucre left four people dead and dozens wounded. Each side blamed the other for provoking the violence and warned of further incidents this weekend.

About two hours west of Santa Cruz, about 250 supporters of Morales and the draft constitution blocked a highway to protest the state government's calls for autonomy. The demonstrators said the leaders of the autonomous movement are wealthy businessmen and landowners who want to preserve the country's status quo of inequality.

"These are the people who have controlled the country and brought to it misery, poverty and hunger," said Norberto Borga, an organizer of the roadblock. "Now they want to force us to be subordinate to them through their autonomy statute."

The political stalemate has prompted Morales to call for an emergency referendum for voters to choose whether he and the country's regional governors keep their jobs. If any of them do not receive more votes in the referendum than they received in the 2005 elections, new elections will be called.

A representative from the Organization of American States, which has offered to help mediate the crisis, arrived in Bolivia on Friday. The government also met Friday with European diplomats who have offered to mediate.

Abramson reported from Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company