Wednesday, November 28, 2007

BOLIVIA: Threat of ‘Secession’ from the East

By Franz Chávez for Inter Press Service

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia,(IPS)- The protests against the draft constitution approved by Bolivian President Evo Morales' supporters in the Constituent Assembly continued Tuesday in the country's eastern regions with an announcement by a large landowner and local civic leader, Branco Marinkovic, of measures aimed at winning regional autonomy.

Speaking to hundreds of middle class demonstrators, students, landowners and members of the business community in the central square in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, Marinkovic urged people to "make sacrifices" to oppose the draft constitution passed by the constituent assembly in a preliminary vote Saturday in Sucre.

The session, which was boycotted by the delegates of rightwing opposition parties, sparked violent protests in the city of Sucre by those opposed to the Morales administration's rewriting of the constitution, which is designed to give greater participation in decisionmaking to the country's impoverished indigenous majority.

Three protesters and one policeman were killed in the clashes between demonstrators and the security forces over the weekend in that southeastern city.


For four months, the opposition had kept the Constituent Assembly, which has a December 14 deadline to come up with a new constitution, from reconvening. On Saturday, the representatives of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party and their allies decided to hold a session in a military academy in Sucre.

But the protesters attacked the police and military cordon set up around the academy, torched local police stations and stormed a jail, setting 100 inmates free.

The call for "sacrifices" issued by Marinkovic Tuesday in Santa Cruz was interpreted in different ways, ranging from an "economic blockade" against the government to the cut-off of basic services and food supplies to the population, to apply pressure to overturn the initial approval of the draft constitution, which was voted by 138 of the 255 Constituent Assembly members.

President Morales, who is the leader of the country's coca farmers, joined a march Monday by campesinos (peasant farmers) and other poor demonstrators calling for the Senate to pass a bill that would provide a lifelong income of $25 a month to people over 60. He walked 11 miles (18 km) at the head of the column of protesters.

Meanwhile, Marinkovic, one of the largest landowners in Bolivia's wealthier eastern region, called for greater provincial autonomy.

His demands, described by the government as "secessionist," include strict controls to curb the inflow of Bolivians from the poor western highlands, self-determination and greater regional control over revenues from the country's vast natural gas reserves.

Bolivia, South America's poorest country, is basically divided between the western altiplano, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the richer eastern departments, which account for most of the country's natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product. Much of the population of eastern Bolivia is made up of people of partly or predominantly European (primarily Spanish) descent.

Marinkovic's calls for autonomy are shared by six of the nine departments that make up Bolivia.

The demonstration in Santa Cruz was the start of a renewed political battle against the Morales administration. Similar protests are planned for Wednesday in the departments of Beni, Pando, Chuquisaca, Cochabamba and Tarija, where, as in Santa Cruz, "civic committees" are aligned with the rightwing opposition and are preparing a 24 hour business strike.

Santa Cruz Governor Rubén Costas said the strike will be held in homage to the victims of what he called "the massacre of La Glorieta", in reference to the protesters killed in Sucre, and against the draft constitution.

Since Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, took office nearly two years ago, the country has grown increasingly polarised over the changes he is attempting to push through.

The leftwing leader renationalised Bolivia's natural gas reserves, strengthened agrarian reform efforts aimed at providing landless indigenous campesinos with small farms, and created social assistance mechanisms for the poor, such as a $25 monthly subsidy paid to families for each child who stays in primary school, and the monthly pension for the elderly.

The proposed land reform has drawn ire in the east, and especially Santa Cruz, where much of the redistribution of rural property will occur. The land to be granted to campesinos will be state-owned property, privately held land that has been left unproductive, and property that was illegally acquired by large landholders or handed out to them by dictatorships in the past.

Morales is aware that the changes he is promoting, which touch on the privileges long enjoyed by the middle and upper class elites, have made him unpopular among those sectors, who call him a "totalitarian tyrant" and accuse him of being a "servile" follower of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Addressing some 30,000 people in a plaza in La Paz, the president pointed out that under his government, the country’s foreign reserves have grown from $1 billion to over $5 billion.

"We no longer have to ask for a loan to pay the Christmas bonus" of public employees, he said, while wondering where so many millions of dollars had gone during previous administrations.

"In Santa Cruz they refuse to accept that their cushy deal is over," said Morales, who blamed "economic warfare" against his government for the difficulties faced by homemakers in the country's poorer regions due to the rising prices of food. Presidential spokesman Alex Contreras said Bolivia was experiencing "a democratic revolution" to enfranchise the country’s indigenous people, which he said is being interpreted by the people of Santa Cruz as an effort to exclude those who own vast expanses of land in forestry, ranching and cash crop export areas in the east.

Far from his home region, the head of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), Adolfo Chávez, said in La Paz that under the new constitution, the land that was taken from the country's native people will be restored to them.

Thousands of people gathered in La Paz to celebrate the initial approval of a new constitution, which must now be debated article by article before being put to voters in a referendum.

Photographs from ABI, El Deber and Reuters

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