Bolivia's Morales says his supporters call him seeking arms to defend his reforms
Published: February 16, 2008 - The Associated Press


LA PAZ, Bolivia: President Evo Morales on Friday said supporters across Bolivia want weapons to defend his government's populist reforms.

"The phone calls come at night, in the wee hours," Morales said at a coca farmers' union meeting in the central city of Cochabamba.

"'You're president, you must make them respect you,'" he said his supporters tell him. "'If you can't, give us arms to make them respect you.'"

Morales said he was encouraged by their devotion, without saying whether he obliged the requests.

"I feel like the people are strong in their defense of this process of change," he said.

The president's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The president's comments are likely to heighten tensions between Morales and four opposition governors, who refuse to recognize his new, still-pending constitution granting greater voice to Bolivia's indigenous groups.

The four eastern states instead declared greater autonomy from Morales' government, demanding a bigger share of key natural gas revenues and hoping to shelter their vast ranches and soy plantations from Morales' plans to redistribute land among the nation's poor.

Morales calls their autonomy campaign illegal, and negotiations between the president and governors broke down last month. Both sides say they hope to keep the dispute peaceful.

But as positions harden, Morales and his supports have hinted at the possibility of violent conflict. On Monday, Morales told an assembly of military cadets to "be prepared to face both internal and external enemies."

The same day, Antonio Peredo, a prominent senator in Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party, warned that "the use of coercive force" could be necessary to halt the "subversive" autonomy movement.