SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, and opposition provincial governors began talks on Thursday to try to end a standoff that erupted in violence amid profound mutual mistrust .
At least 18 people were killed last week as anti-Morales protesters stormed government buildings, sabotaged natural gas pipelines and battled with the president’s supporters in four opposition-controlled provinces seeking more autonomy.
“This may be the last chance to solve the country’s problems in peace,” said Mario Cossio, governor of the southern Tarija province, as he arrived at the talks in the central city of Cochabamba.
The Roman Catholic Church and international envoys, including Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, will observe the discussions.
“The government thinks an accord in four or five days of continuous work is possible if there is sincere will for dialogue,” government spokesman Ivan Canelas said.
But tensions remained high in the natural gas-rich Andean nation. Opponents of Morales are demanding the release of the northern Pando province’s governor, who was arrested under martial law after officials accused him of ordering “a massacre” of peasant farmers last week.
Thousands of peasants loyal to Morales continued to block roads around the opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz.
Morales accused the Catholic Church on Wednesday of siding with the governors and the United States, which he says is fomenting protests against him. He also repeated accusations that his rivals were seeking to oust him.
During the talks, the governors will press their demands for more regional autonomy, a larger share of revenues from natural gas exports and more say on education and transport policy.
Skeptics say the talks could deepen Bolivia’s divisions if they force the government to amend a new constitution drafted by an elected constituent assembly dominated by a majority of Morales supporters.
“Granting autonomy means revising a host of issues in the constitution from land reform to health,” said Ruben Cuellar, an assembly delegate for the opposition Podemos party.
Supporters of Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, fear his socialist reforms could be watered down.
“The people could feel deceived and protest, grass-roots movements will be watching these talks closely,” Vladimir Alarcon, assembly delegate for Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party, told Reuters.
Farming industry lobbies want to block restrictions in the proposed constitution on the size of land holdings.
“There’s no way we’ll support limitations on the size of properties,” said Guido Nayar, head of the influential agriculture federation in Santa Cruz, home to large cattle ranches, sugar plantations and soy farms.
Others say any proposals coming out of the talks, which would likely have to be approved by the constituent assembly, could heighten the legitimacy of a new constitution.
“The opposition could no longer say it didn’t participate in the process. The assembly may move faster on consensus proposals,” Movement Toward Socialism assembly delegate Johnny Valdez said.
Additional reporting by Danilo Balderrama in Cochabamba, editing by Philip Barbara
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