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Negotiators inch forward in Bolivia

An accord is hammered out on addressing tough issues such as divvying oil and gas revenues.

September 17, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA — Fragile dialogue between the Bolivian government and its opponents appeared to move forward late Tuesday as the two sides backed a framework for talks.

Negotiators hammered out an agreement on issues to be discussed, including the controversial distribution of revenues from natural gas and petroleum. Five provinces aligned against President Evo Morales are calling for a greater share of the energy funds.

"Dialogue is the only path for the nation," said Ruben Costas, governor of the eastern province of Santa Cruz, an opposition stronghold. "We have decided to sign this document to bring back peace."

Mario Cossio, the governor of Tarija province and the opposition point man in talks with the government, signed the document here Tuesday. He voiced hope that Morales would endorse the move toward conciliation.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera called the signing of the document "a true sign of the commitment toward peace and tranquillity."

Other points to be discussed in talks scheduled for this week include the return of government buildings occupied in recent violence and the president's contentious plans for a new constitution.

The signing came after the talks appeared to stall because of the arrest of an opposition governor accused of genocide in the killings last week of more than a dozen people. Earlier reports put the figure higher.

The slayings were part of a wave of violence, roadblocks and sabotage in Bolivia that sparked fears of civil conflict overtaking this Andean nation.

The detention Tuesday of Gov. Leopoldo Fernandez of northern Pando state, an opposition bastion, was denounced by government critics as politically motivated.

Fernandez has blamed the central government for provoking the killings. Sparsely populated Pando, along the Amazonian border with Peru and Brazil, is under martial law. But Morales has made it clear that he was not willing to back down on the arrest of the governor, whom authorities accused of orchestrating a "massacre."

Meantime, deteriorating U.S.-Bolivian relations worsened as President Bush declared Tuesday that Bolivia was no longer cooperating in the war on drugs. It was the first time that Bolivia was placed on the U.S. list of non-cooperating countries, along with Venezuela, which has been on the list four years in a row.

Inclusion on the list could mean the loss of U.S. aid, but the Bush administration chose not to withhold aid from the two. About $100 million in U.S. aid annually goes to Bolivia for anti-narcotics projects, development and other support.

Last week, Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador after accusing him of fomenting rebellion. Venezuela then expelled the U.S. envoy in Caracas in solidarity with Bolivia. In response, Washington kicked out the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors.

Concerns about violence in Bolivia resulted in the Peace Corps evacuating more than 100 volunteers who had been working throughout the country. The U.S. Embassy also allowed nonessential personnel to return to the United States if they so desired.

Cocaine trafficking has long been the central issue in U.S.-Bolivian relations. Bolivia is the world's third-largest producer of cocaine, after Colombia and Peru.

Morales emerged as a national figure while heading a union representing growers of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient for cocaine.

Since Morales took office in 2006, the amount of coca under cultivation has risen steadily, U.S. officials say. And tension about drugs has mounted in recent months.

Coca growers, backed by Morales' government, recently expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development from the Chapare region, a major coca growing area.

This month, U.S. authorities say, the Drug Enforcement Administration was also forced to leave the Chapare region.

"These actions represent a retreat from Bolivia's international obligations to control cocaine trafficking," David T. Johnson, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said in Washington.

The United States provides about $35 million annually in counter-narcotics funding to Bolivia, much of it used to train and pay police and support eradication of the coca leaf.

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patrick.mcdonnell @latimes. com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Martin Monasterio in Santa Cruz contributed to this report.

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