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Bolivia's Morales faces biggest test

Political leaders in wealthy regions, long alienated from leader's power bases elsewhere, seek greater autonomy.

December 25, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — Not yet a year in office, President Evo Morales can boast of some major accomplishments. He has nationalized the country's oil and gas industry, overseen sweeping agrarian reform and convened an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Polls show the former llama herder and coca-leaf farmer is maintaining a positive rating of more than 60% in opinion polls, even as Bolivia has lurched from one political crisis to another.

Bolivia's first Indian president has not backed down from his campaign pledge to be a "nightmare" for Washington, emerging as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's closest ally in the region. With his fiery revolutionary rhetoric and distinctive jackets crafted of Indian fabrics, Morales has gained great cachet among the left in Latin America, the United States and especially Europe.

"An indigenous government has extraordinary 'sex appeal,' " said Carlos Torsano, an independent political analyst here. Torsano notes that despite Morales' focus on what the leader calls Bolivia's indigenous majority, polls have shown that most Bolivians, like most Latin Americans, consider themselves mestizo, or mixed-race people.

And, for all the political adeptness, Morales is now facing his most daunting challenge.

A political insurrection has enveloped four provinces in Bolivia's east, north and south, a swath of the country known as the half-moon that contains much of the nation's wealth, including most of its gas reserves. Political leaders there, long alienated from Morales' power base in the Andes heartland and the coca-growing tropics, are pushing for more autonomy.

Their supporters launched mass demonstrations, civic strikes and legislative action, culminating in huge protests Dec. 15.

"The road to autonomy is something that our society has been working toward for a long time, with mobilizations, protests and votes," said German Antelo, president of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, the thriving eastern lowland city that is the heart of the autonomy movement. "We're not looking to break away from Bolivia. We just want respect for popular will that seeks autonomy."

What autonomy would mean in practice is unclear, although it probably would include local governments receiving a larger share of taxes and royalties from their natural gas. This is not a small thing at a time when gas revenue is expected to increase by billions of dollars thanks to new contracts negotiated with foreign energy companies under Morales' nationalization scheme.

The president has signaled that he regards talk of autonomy as the first step toward breaking up the country, South America's poorest. He derides the autonomy movement as the elite's response to his leftist reforms.

"The fatherland cannot be divided," Morales declared during a ceremony at the Army Military college here this month. But he softened his tone after Dec. 15, saying the pro-autonomy movement had modified its goals. "They no longer advocate division, separation," Morales said.

The tension surrounding autonomy has escalated as Bolivia and Venezuela approved a military assistance pact in November that has troubled Morales critics and U.S. diplomats.

"If, for some reason, the brotherly revolution in Bolivia was threatened, and our blood was solicited, we would be here," Julio Montes, Venezuela's ambassador and a major behind-the-scenes player here, recently told a gathering of peasants in the Chapare, Morales' home base.

The ambassador's comments ignited a firestorm among autonomy supporters, fierce critics of the Bolivia-Venezuela alliance.

"We know that there are Venezuelan advisors in many areas of the government, and this pact opens the possibility of any kind of intervention," opposition Sen. Oscar Ortiz told reporters.

Morales supporters have pushed back. "We will defend with blood the unity of the country," Nazario Ramirez, a proMorales leader in the La Paz suburb of El Alto said.

Morales has spoken of his own plan for autonomy for indigenous people without specifying exactly what that means.

The autonomy issue has become entwined with the controversy swirling around the rewriting of the constitution.

In July, residents of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni, the four half-moon states, voted for greater autonomy in a referendum held the same day a 225-member assembly was chosen to craft a new constitution.

Rewriting the constitution is widely seen here as a means for Morales to implement far-ranging reforms and consolidate his power, much as Venezuela's Chavez used such a convention to cement his hold on the government.

But Morales won only a slight majority of the constitutional assembly. His allies are pushing for rules allowing most constitutional changes to be made by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote, which would ensure passage of Morales' program and guarantee defeat of regional autonomy.

Predictably, officials from the four states and other Morales opponents have balked, arguing that a two-thirds vote is required on constitutional issues.

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