Bolivian dissident states declare autonomy in stiff challenge to Morales
December 14, 2007
- Intl Herald Tribune - AP

LA PAZ, Bolivia: Four states in open revolt against a constitutional overhaul by President Evo Morales and his pro-indigenous allies declared their intention Thursday to create independent regional governments.

A 130-member assembly in the eastern opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz approved an "autonomy statute" under which the state would hold on to nearly two-thirds of the tax revenues it currently turns over to central authorities.

Among measures contemplated by the statute is a police force for Santa Cruz, a lowland state that is Bolivia's wealthiest. Local leaders say they'll seek a state referendum in coming months to approve it.

The other states which say they'll approve regional charters by Saturday are Beni, Pando and Tarija, which represent with Santa Cruz some 35 percent of Bolivia's more than 8.5 million people. They said their statutes would be similar to Santa Cruz's but did not immediately provide details.

Morales' government called on its supporters to turn out Saturday en masse in Santa Cruz, the eponymous capital of the eastern state, to protest the autonomy move.

Pro-autonomy civic leaders plan to present the statute to the public also on Saturday in the city, where protesters have in recent weeks tried to take over national government tax offices.

A standoff between pro- and anti-Morales forces has become increasingly tense since a rump assembly of Morales allies approved in two votes since late November a draft constitution that would establish a multiethnic state with self-governing regions for indigenous groups.

The charter, which Bolivia's voters must approve in referendums to be held sometime next year, would shift more power to central authorities at the expense of the country's nine states.

The most adversely affected would be Santa Cruz, its leaders say. The state is the most prosperous in South America's poorest country, with major agribusinesses including extensive soy farms.

Morales' core support comes from the poor, indigenous majority that lives primarily in arid Andean highlands.

The country's first indigenous president, Morales considered his December 2005 election victory a mandate to reverse what he considers centuries of discrimination by a European-descended elite.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia, addressing leaders of the revolting states on national television Thursday, called on the scores of opposition members engaged in hunger strikes to cease them. He said he feared "a catastrophic standoff" had been reached in a power struggle of unforeseeable consequences.

The Morales government sent 400 police reinforcements to Santa Cruz this week, but denied sending soldiers.

A top Santa Cruz leader, Juan Carlos Urenda, insisted the proposed autonomy statute is not secessionist. It recognizes Santa Cruz as part of Bolivia, with the central government continuing to maintain control over foreign affairs, defense and the currency.

But Urenda called the constitution approved by Morales' backers a racist trick that would effectively dissolve Bolivia's states by permitting indigenous communities to violate their territorial integrity.

Morales, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, insists the autonomy movement is conspiring with the U.S. government to topple him. Washington hasn't commented on the latest developments in Bolivia but did release a consular note urging U.S. citizens to stay away from the country until Jan. 11.
AP writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru contributed to this report.