Bolivian President, Opposition Agree to Talks to Defuse Crisis

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, Sept. 16 -- Bolivian President Evo Morales and opposition leaders agreed Tuesday to formal negotiations to defuse a crisis that has threatened to split the country in half and led to more than 15 deaths.

The two sides will meet Thursday to discuss issues that include greater distribution of revenue, which dissidents want, and a proposed constitution that the government seeks to put in place. The agreement was signed by Morales and two influential opposition governors, Mario Cossío and Rubén Costas, from relatively prosperous eastern states.

The late-night accord came on the same day that the Bush administration placed Bolivia on a list of countries that have failed to adequately combat drug trafficking. Last week, Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and declared a state of emergency to quell anti-government protests.

A resolution of the Bolivian crisis had appeared remote earlier Tuesday, after Morales announced the arrest of opposition governor Leopoldo Fernández and accused him of fomenting violence in his state, Pando. Opposition leaders said the charges appeared politically motivated.

U.S. officials saw the situation as deteriorating. They suspended Peace Corps programs in Bolivia and began arranging flights for Americans who wanted to leave.

Protests have roiled the politically volatile country of 9 million people as opponents in four lowland states rich in energy reserves and fertile farmland fight for autonomy from a government they accuse of concentrating power in Morales's hands.

The president has been planning a referendum on a new constitution that he says would give more rights to the majority indigenous population. It would also permit him to run for a second term, give the central government more power and break up large farms as part of an ambitious land reform program.

Fears that the unrest would spread prompted several South American presidents, meeting Monday in an emergency summit in Chile, to issue a statement that backed Morales and announced the creation of a commission to help advance negotiations.

Eduardo Gamarra, an expert on Bolivia at Miami's Florida International University, said the two sides are so far apart that the only "glimmer of hope" for a resolution is if Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, respected by both leftists and conservatives in Bolivia, plays an active role in talks. "Mediation is the only thing that's going to get them out of there," he said.

Fabian Yaksic, a minister in the Morales government, said that thorny issues were now on the table, including the constitution and autonomy.

In Washington, the State Department said Bolivia had "failed demonstrably" in the past year in the fight on drugs.

Although the designation makes Bolivia liable for cuts in aid, the White House said it would waive the penalty because its programs in that country are "vital to national interests."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondent Andres Schipani in La Paz contributed to this report.

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