Bolivia's prez open to autonomy for eastern states
September 19, 2008 - Associated Press

By DAN KEANE – 1 day ago

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — President Evo Morales offered Friday to include eastern provinces' autonomy demands in his proposed new constitution, raising hopes for a solution to Bolivia's bloody political crisis.

(left) Bolivia's Vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera, right, shakes hands with Jose Miguel Insulza, General Secretary of the Organization of American States, OAS, before a meeting at the presidential palace in La Paz, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008. Marathon closed-door talks between President Evo Morales and Bolivia's provincial governors ended early Friday with hope for a solution to the divided country's political crisis. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

But the leftist leader and his adversaries in the conservative lowlands have been battling over greater local self-rule since Morales took office in 2006, and it is far from clear whether the president's offer will lead to an agreement.

On Friday, the two sides discussed the autonomy question — a hot-button issue in Bolivia, whose feeble but heavily centralized government struggles to contain the country's deep racial, cultural and geographical divides.

Morales, riding high after winning 67 percent support in last month's recall election included surprising gains in the traditionally hostile lowland east, is now pushing for a national vote to approve a new constitution granting greater power to Bolivia's long-oppressed indigenous majority.

"Who knows, maybe it's a problem, maybe it's a crime to work on behalf of the forgotten," Morales said Friday during a brief visit to Panama. "But we will continue with the support of the Bolivian people and the international community."

Eastern provinces say the draft constitution does not address their demands for autonomy. The lowlands have long sought greater control over their region's natural gas revenues, and hope to shield their large agricultural holdings from redistribution under Morales' land reform.

Deadly protests swept the east last week as anti-Morales groups sacked goverment offices, seized gas pipelines and gunned down more than a dozen of the president's supporters.