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`Capital war' is Bolivia's latest battle

A proposal to move the government seat from La Paz inflames regional rivalries; backers say it would help unify nation.

August 05, 2007|Oscar Ordonez and Patrick J. McDonnell | Special to The Times

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — Bolivia has endured popular uprisings in recent years dubbed the "gas war" and the "water war." Now it faces the "capital war."

Multitudes have taken to the streets over a proposal to move the capital from bustling La Paz to sleepy Sucre, a colonial city that lost its capital status in a bloody struggle more than a century ago.

It is the latest fissure in a nation where bitter regional rivalries have stoked fears of fragmentation and civil conflict. All agree that Bolivia doesn't need more division.

"What matters to me is that there is no bloodshed, massacres or calls for social convulsions," said Silvia Lazarte, president of Bolivia's constituent assembly.

The capital rivalry has further extended the odds against lawmakers meeting a Monday deadline for drafting a new constitution. The date probably will be postponed to December, officials say.

Restoring equilibrium

Here in high-altitude La Paz, where a boisterous crowd estimated at more than 1 million marched last month in opposition to moving the capital, the proposal is widely viewed as a ploy by rebellious lowland provinces to wrest control of this impoverished but resource-rich nation of 9 million.

"They want to divide the country!" Nazario Ramirez, a civic leader, told the assembled masses.

Proponents of moving the capital say Sucre, a city of 250,000 near the country's geographic center, is in a better position to foster national reconciliation than is La Paz, in the western Andean highlands, the stronghold of President Evo Morales.

"Bolivia is now on the verge of violent confrontation," Jaime Barron, a leader of the pro-Sucre movement, said during a rally in that city, about 260 miles southeast of La Paz. "We propose to establish a center of national equilibrium in Sucre ... erasing at once the grave danger that our homeland will fragment."

The move would be an economic and social boon for Sucre, which was the site of Bolivia's founding in 1825 and was the sole capital until the administrative capital was moved to La Paz in 1898 after a short civil war. The two cities have maintained a rivalry ever since. Bolivia's judiciary is based in Sucre, and the much larger legislative and executive branches of government reside in La Paz.

"We need progress," said Patricia Unzueta, a literature professor in Sucre. "We need to be more ambitious."

But pacenos, as La Paz residents are known, say the switch would devastate the economy of the country's major metropolis, home to about 1.7 million inhabitants, including the adjoining fast-growing suburb of El Alto.

Sucre lacks a major airport and other infrastructure.

The idea of relocating the government seat has further slowed the nation's 255-delegate constitutional convention, which convened in Sucre last year.

Constitutional work

The work of crafting a new constitution for South America's poorest country has devolved into a struggle between leftist supporters of Morales and conservative adversaries in the so-called half-moon lowlands, to the east, north and south. Much of the nation's resources, including vast natural gas deposits, lie in the subtropical half-moon expanses.

Advocates of the four half-moon provinces have been pushing for constitutional autonomy from the central government in La Paz. Some have formed an alliance with advocates of moving the capital back to Sucre.

Morales calls autonomy for those provinces a prelude to the outright breakup of Bolivia. The president's supporters view the proposed capital transfer as a way to derail the new constitution and to split the country.

"La Paz is at the forefront of national unity," Morales said last month after the massive march in the capital, which he called the country's largest-ever gathering.

Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, derides opponents in the half-moon region as oligarchic remnants of the white and mixed-race elite who long dominated, and plundered, Bolivia. The president is pushing for a constitution to benefit the highland indigenous masses and coca-leaf growers who compose his base.

Representatives of the half-moon provinces call Morales a race-baiting autocrat and dictator-in-waiting like his patron, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. They want a greater share of hydrocarbon and other revenues. Officials in the gas-rich southern Tarija province have threatened to declare unilateral autonomy this week if the new constitution doesn't grant it.

Another source of discord, the Armed Forces Day parade, is to be held Tuesday in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, a bastion of anti-Morales sentiment. Indigenous militiamen loyal to Morales are expected to participate, stoking resentment in Santa Cruz.

Another crisis

Despite the tumult and a turbulent history of military coups, Bolivia has demonstrated a certain resiliency in recent years.

A fragile democracy held even after "wars" over water rights in 2000 and gas exports in 2003 shook the nation. Those disputes eventually paved the way for Morales' election in December 2005. Many predict Bolivia also will withstand this crisis.

"We have this uncanny ability to go to the edge and not fall off," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-born political scientist at Florida International University. "We're at the edge again, but I think we'll see some compromise."


Special correspondent Ordonez reported from La Paz and Times staff writer McDonnell from Buenos Aires.

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