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Dueling rallies spotlight deep split in Bolivia

December 16, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA — Tens of thousands of people celebrated their self-declared "autonomy" and rejection of President Evo Morales' leftist reforms by marching through the streets here Saturday.

At the same time, in the highland capital of La Paz, Morales symbolically received a copy of the disputed new constitution as thousands of his supporters paraded through the streets.

The dueling demonstrations underscored the profound cleavages in this deeply divided nation almost two years after Morales was elected Bolivia's first indigenous president.

"This is a historic day," declared Manfredo Bravo, 37, a university professor who was among thousands who attended a boisterous anti-Morales rally near the center of this eastern city, hub of the autonomy movement. "Santa Cruz will not accept a denial of liberty."

Joining the province of Santa Cruz are the gas-rich province of Tarija and Amazonian regions of Beni and Pando. The four provinces contain much of Bolivia's natural resource wealth and most of its large natural gas deposits, the second biggest in South America, after Venezuela's.

Officials from the four provinces allege that Morales is steering the country toward a kind of authoritarian socialism in the model of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Morales patron. Morales denies any authoritarian aims and says he is being attacked for championing the cause of Bolivia's poor and disenfranchised.

Some scattered incidents of violence were reported Saturday, but this city was peaceful and festive, even as police and army units were in a state of high alert. Morales has warned that force would be used to counter any effort to divide this country of 9 million, generally considered South America's poorest.

Bolivia has a long history of military coups but has maintained democratic rule in recent decades despite almost constant political turmoil.

Popular protests helped drive two of Morales' predecessors from office.

Officials in all four pro-autonomy provinces say they want to remain part of Bolivia but seek enhanced self-rule -- and a greater share of revenues from gas and other natural resources.

"We don't want to be like Venezuela," said Lindy Aguilera, among the thousands who attended the pro-autonomy rally here, where many waved flags of green and white, the provincial colors. "Evo Morales doesn't like us because our skin is a bit lighter."

The dispute in Bolivia has strong racial undertones. Morales purports to represent the indigenous "majority," though others say most of Bolivia's population is actually mixed-race, not fully indigenous. Many immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and even Japan settled in and around subtropical Santa Cruz during the 20th century.

Morales' power base lies in the western altiplano, the chilly, high-plains expanse that is the Andean indigenous homeland. The president is an Aymara Indian who rose from poverty in the mining province of Oruru. He has viewed his election as an opportunity to reverse centuries of domination by what he calls a European-descended, light-skinned elite.

It was in Oruru, a Morales stronghold, where a constitution-writing assembly approved the new charter last weekend amid an opposition boycott. The new constitution still must be approved by voters in a referendum next year.

The new constitution denies the kind of regional autonomy sought by leaders in the four provinces. But the constitution does give a greater degree of autonomy to the indigenous groups who are the core supporters of Morales.

For now, the autonomy movement seems more symbolic than anything else.

Voters in the four pro-autonomy provinces are being asked to cast ballots next year on a proposal to give greater independence to the regions.

The new draft constitution that was heartily rejected here was praised in La Paz as a breakthrough for Bolivia's poor and working classes.

"We are celebrating today the great triumph of the Bolivian people," Morales declared, disparaging the pro-autonomy activists as traitors. "They want to divide Bolivia, but we won't let them."

Residents here say they are only standing up for their rights.

"Evo dismisses all us rich ranchers, but we give jobs to the poor and have worked hard all our lives," said Enrique Aguilera, 62, a farmer who was among those at the rally. "We will fight for our way of life and for what we believe in."

patrick.mcdonnell@ latimes.com

Special correspondent Oscar Ordonez in La Paz contributed to this report.

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