Deadly riots shake Bolivia over pro-Morales constitution
Published: November 25, 2007. International Herald Tribune - AP

SUCRE, Bolivia -- Riots convulsed Bolivia's colonial capital Sunday after allies of President Evo Morales approved the framework for a new constitution that would permit his indefinite re-election and could radically alter Bolivian politics.

At least two people, including a police officer, were killed.

A full article-by-article version of the constitution, which would establish a multiethnic state with 36 self-governing regions for indigenous groups, has yet to be approved.

But Morales on Sunday declared that the new charter's essence has now been determined. Voters will determine its fate, he said, without giving a date.

"The constitution will be approved in a referendum by the people, which is the most democratic" way, said Morales, 48. An Aymara Indian and coca growers' union leader, Morales' political playbook has followed closely that of his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The unrest prompted national police commander Gen. Miguel Vasquez to order all units out of Sucre, where the draft constitution was approved Saturday, "to avoid more confrontations." He said the slain police officer had been "lynched" but offered no details.

Hospital officials said the other victim was a carpenter who died of injuries after being hit by a tear gas canister as protesters attacked police headquarters and set fire to a jail, allowing 100 inmates to escape.

A third person, a lawyer previously identified as a student, was shot and killed on Saturday. It was unclear who killed the lawyer.

Forty others were injured as protesters hurled rocks, Molotov cocktails and dynamite at police.

Morales said the protests in Sucre "were manipulated by oligarchic and neoliberal (pro-capitalist) groups that don't want change."

"The heart of the matter is that some groups don't accept that an indigenous person is president," he said.

Rioting began on Friday, after delegates to the constitutional assembly — loyal to Morales and primarily from his governing Movement Toward Socialism party, known as MAS — reconvened in a military garrison outside Sucre.

They approved the framework for the constitution by a simple majority on Saturday, breaking a monthslong deadlock. All but three opposition delegates boycotted the assembly sessions.

The document would allow the president unlimited re-election and would give central authorities greater control over public revenue disbursements at the expense of state governments.

Opponents say the new constitution unfairly reduces the power of Bolivia's nine states.

Branko Marinkovic, a top opposition leader in Santa Cruz, said the charter's approval was "made illegitimate with blood."

The assembly must complete the new constitution by Dec. 14, then submit it to a referendum. Under a complicated formula, only those articles not backed by two-thirds of the assembly must be approved by Bolivian voters.

"The country is more divided than ever," said Ximena Costa, an independent political analyst. "We are talking now not about a polarization, but rather of fractures within Bolivian society."

Morales' opponents are based in the country's more prosperous, entrepreneurial east — centered around the lowland city of Santa Cruz — while his core backers are the poor indigenous majority that elected him in December 2005, hoping to reverse centuries of discrimination.

When the assembly last deadlocked in August, opposition activists spearheaded a campaign to move the nation's capital from La Paz to Sucre, further dividing the country.

Sucre is the site of Bolivia's 1825 founding, its colonial capital and home to its highest courts, while La Paz is home to the nation's legislature and executive branch.

Morales on Sunday called that campaign a "pretext" for the weekend's violence, which spread Sunday to Santa Cruz, where protesters attacked a government tax office.

Flights to Sucre's airport have been canceled since Saturday, and the terminal remained under the control of protesters.
Associated Press writers Alvaro Zuazo and Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.