Bolivia's Morales throws unity talks into disarray
Fri Jan 18, 2008 11:09pm - Rueters

By Terry Wade

LA PAZ, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Talks to end Bolivia's political crisis were in disarray on Friday after leftist President Evo Morales slashed provincial budgets, prompting the opposition to accuse him of breaking promises.

Officials suspended the negotiations to forge a national unity pact as political rivals expressed shock that Morales had imposed a plan to cut money that provinces get from natural gas exports by 30 percent and use the savings to fund social programs favored by his Socialist MAS party.

Morales' decree threatened to widen divisions in South America's poorest country, where politics have been especially turbulent since four of its nine provinces declared autonomy last month to protest the president's reforms and the draft of a new constitution approved by his allies.

Prior to Morales' edict, both sides had been negotiating for two weeks on how to incorporate some of the provinces' autonomy demands into the new constitution and divvy up lucrative revenue from gas exports.

The opposition said chances of a compromise were slim even if talks resumed next week.

"I think the Bolivian people are tired of this double-speak and the constant lies we are living in this country," Branko Marinkovic, a leader of the opposition movement in Santa Cruz province, told local media. "The government says it wants dialogue but it does exactly the opposite ... and cuts revenue."


The government has said it will try to compensate the provinces for lost natural gas revenue.

"We are looking at alternatives and we are optimistic we will reach an agreement," Finance Minister Luis Alberto Arce said on Thursday.

But in a sign of growing opposition to Morales, top Bolivian judges and lawyers said this week his proposed new constitution was illegal because the president's allies approved it late last year without input from the opposition or a two-thirds majority in the constitutional assembly.

Legal problems and inconsistencies also riddle the document so it cannot be put to a referendum this year as Morales has planned, the judges said.

Morales says the draft constitution will help redress centuries of domination by a European-descended elite.

But the Andean country's first indigenous leader has run into resistance from governors in Bolivia's eastern provinces, which are rich in natural gas deposits.

On Wednesday anti-Morales groups in Chuquisaca filed with authorities petitions containing thousands of signatures as part of their drive to become the fifth province to declare autonomy, a move that would tip the balance against Morales.

The government has said Morales and the governors will face up-or-down referendums for their jobs if they fail to reach a national accord soon to end the deadlock.

(Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Hilary Burke and Xavier Briand) © Reuters2008All rights reserved.