July 27, 2007 / 5:01 PM / 11 years ago

Bolivian splits exposed by move to shift capital

LA PAZ, July 27 (Reuters) - Bolivia is being roiled by a campaign to move the capital that threatens to deepen regional splits in the South American country and overshadow constitutional reforms led by President Evo Morales.

The idea to shift the seat of government from bustling La Paz high in the Andes mountains to slower, colonial Sucre emerged during discussions at an assembly rewriting Bolivia’s constitution.

The issue — reflecting regional disparities, rivalries and historical roles — has sparked demonstrations, including one in La Paz of at least 1 million people.

Some fear the move could provoke fresh instability after political unrest in recent years. Others see a distraction from more pressing concerns such as acute poverty in South America’s poorest country.

“This issue of the capital city is fiction, an enormous absurdity,” said Samuel Guzman, an architect from La Paz. “Once again, the nation’s maturity is being put to the test.”

The proposal to relocate the government to Sucre, a city of 250,000 people about 435 miles (700 km) southeast of La Paz, is backed by the rightist opposition that is concentrated in wealthier, eastern Bolivia.

Sucre, named for a Venezuelan independence hero who was a colleague of the country’s founder Simon Bolivar, was the capital before a 19th century civil war led to a move to La Paz. Sucre retains the historic title of legal or constitutional capital and is still home to the Supreme Court.

Supporters of the move say centrally located Sucre would provide a balance in the rivalry between east and west.

Critics say changing the capital would cost billions of dollars. Some accuse the opposition of pushing the proposal to derail the constitutional reforms, a pillar of Morales’ plans to empower the indigenous majority concentrated in the west.

TWO-THIRDS OPPOSED

The debate has been dominating newspaper editorials and radio phone-in shows.

Tens of thousands of people joined a rally at a soccer stadium in Sucre on Wednesday to press their case, five days after more than 1 million La Paz residents took to the streets shouting ‘The capital’s not moving’.”

Leaders of Sucre’s campaign say they have strong support in many parts of Bolivia.

“We’ll go to every corner of the country to defend our proposal. The people have to know we’re not looking for division, rather a way to unite the country,” Jaime Barron, a civil leader from Sucre, told La Prensa newspaper.

Despite that confidence, an opinion poll in the paper La Razon on Friday showed 66 percent of Bolivians oppose the move.

Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, says the proposal should not be included in the constitutional assembly’s voting on the grounds it risks splitting the country. That view is shared by most La Paz residents.

“This issue is stupid and has been caused by people who want to destabilize the government because they don’t like having an Indian in power,” said Carmen Quiroga, a biologist.

“What with all the poverty we have, the money it would cost could be spent on more useful things.”

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