Oil Report

Bolivians fear political unrest as rivals face off

LA PAZ, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Bolivians are used to seeing their nation teeter on the brink of political crisis, but a confrontation between President Evo Morales and his rightist opponents has some fearing a fresh slide into instability.

Tensions have grown over Morales’ constitutional reform, which the opposition rejected by declaring autonomy in four eastern regions. Both sides have called for negotiations, but neither appears ready to make concessions.

While a lull is expected over Christmas and the New Year, many Bolivians wonder what lies in store in 2008 when a slew of referendums will decide the fate of the controversial constitution and regional autonomy declarations.

“We’re terribly at odds, but we need a peaceful solution or else we’ll end up with civil war,” said school teacher Edgar Mamani, sitting in a park in the Andean city of La Paz.

He blamed Morales’ opponents for the standoff, saying they wanted to block policies aimed at easing poverty in South America’s poorest country.

Morales’ drive to rewrite the constitution to empower Bolivia’s Indian majority has deepened age rivalries between the Andean west and lowland east -- an opposition stronghold with large natural gas reserves.

Critics say the charter is an illegal power grab, forced through by Morales’ allies. Their complain it does not give the regions sufficient autonomy while granting autonomy to indigenous communities.

Four regions declared themselves autonomous in mass public rallies on Saturday, a step Morales called unconstitutional.

“As a result of all this fuss, the perception abroad is that we’re all expecting civil war,” said Humberto Vacaflor, an analyst and columnist based in gas-rich Tarija province -- one of the rebel regions.


Morales, an Aymara Indian, has called for dialogue, but continues to brand his opponents as racists. He says they fear the new constitution will end 500 years of domination by a white elite.

Calls for autonomy in the east are not new, but Morales’ aim to increase state control of the economy and land has angered many in Santa Cruz, an agricultural and economic center where critics say Morales wants to impose an Aymara society.

“The clumsy way in which the government has handled the situation has also led the regions to take increasingly radical positions,” said Santa Cruz-based columnist Susana Seleme. “Evo Morales and his government have exacerbated the differences.”

The new constitution places land management in central government hands and seeks to limit the size of idle land-holdings, a touchy subject for big eastern landowners.

Santa Cruz’s powerful farmers have threatened to take up arms to defend their land, but most analysts dismiss the likelihood of widespread violence or secession since Santa Cruz depends on La Paz as the main market for its goods.

“The situation is delicate ... I think tensions will remain but also that they will find a path to dialogue,” said Xavier Albo, a Jesuit political analyst and anthropologist.

Others are less optimistic and say neither Morales nor his rivals are willing to give ground.

“Both sides are demagogues,” said La Paz businessman Orlando Cabezas. “It’s more and more difficult to find a way to return to dialogue. We’re getting ourselves into things that are very hard to resolve.” (Editing by Alan Elsner)