Bolivian president agrees to talks with opposition
Sat Dec 29, 2007 - Reuters

By Carlos Quiroga

LA PAZ, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales agreed on Saturday to meet with opposition governors early in the New Year to seek a way out of a political crisis that threatens to split the country.

Five governors who are deeply opposed to Morales' reform agenda and want their regions to receive more funds from his energy nationalization will meet with the president in the national palace in La Paz on Jan. 7.

Morales, two years into his five-year presidency, has pushed for a new constitution to give indigenous communities more power and to allow the state to take over unproductive land holdings.

In response to the draft constitution approved by Morales allies in a national assembly, four provinces declared themselves autonomous in mass public rallies in mid-December. Earlier, several people had died in violent protests against the way the constitutional assembly conducted debate.

Morales, a close ally of the region's most outspoken leftist leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said he would meet with all nine of the country's governors, including four who are allies.

"The president confirmed today that he will meet on Jan. 7 with the nine governors, in a dialogue with an open agenda with no conditions," government spokesman Alex Contreras told Reuters on Saturday.

Morales, an Aymara Indian who is the country's first leader of indigenous descent, is highly popular in the Andean west of the country. But his initiatives have deepened old rivalries with the lowland east -- an opposition stronghold that is home to the country's huge natural gas reserves.

The opposition governors will press Morales to direct some of the central government's windfall from natural gas exports to local government. Government income has greatly increased since the 2006 energy nationalization, which forced foreign companies to pay much more of their profit to the state.

Morales' 2008 budget, which was passed in Congress despite opposition complaints, includes a $310 per month pension for some 700,000 elderly people in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America. (Reporting by Carlos Quiroga; Translating by Fiona Ortiz; editing by Stuart Grudgings)