Morales offers autonomy hope for eastern states

Bolivian President Evo Morales has offered to include eastern provinces’ autonomy demands in his proposed new constitution, raising hopes for a solution to Bolivia’s bloody political crisis.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has offered to include eastern provinces’ autonomy demands in his proposed new constitution, raising hopes for a solution to Bolivia’s bloody political crisis.

But the left-wing leader and his adversaries in the conservative lowlands have been battling over greater local self-rule since Mr Morales took office in 2006 and it is far from clear whether the president’s offer will lead to an agreement.

Last night the two sides discussed the autonomy question – a hot-button issue in Bolivia, whose feeble but heavily centralised government struggles to contain the country’s deep racial, cultural and geographical divides.

Mr Morales – riding high after winning 67% support in last month’s recall election, including surprising gains in the traditionally hostile lowland east - is now pushing for a national vote to approve a new constitution granting greater power to Bolivia’s long-oppressed indigenous majority.

“Who knows, maybe it’s a problem, maybe it’s a crime to work on behalf of the forgotten,” Mr Morales said during a brief visit to Panama. “But that’s the most important thing – these transformations of democracy.”

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, note that Mr Morales lost in three of four lowland provinces and say voters there back demands for regional autonomy left out of the draft constitution.

The lowlands have long sought greater control over their region’s natural gas revenues, and hope to shield their large agricultural holdings from redistribution under Mr Morales’ land reform.

Deadly protests swept the east last week as anti-Morales groups blockaded roads, sacked government offices and seized gas pipelines.

The worst of the violence took place in the rural eastern province of Pando, where governor Leopoldo Fernandez was arrested and accused of organising an armed ambush of Morales supporters that killed 17.

Pando is also emblematic of Mr Morales’ strengthening hand; he polled a surprising 53% in the recall election there, and if the charges against Mr Fernandez stick, he could soon be rid of one of his most virulent opponents.

But many in Bolivia hope that Mr Morales, a famously hardline negotiator, will resist the urge to run roughshod over a weakened opposition at the negotiating table.

“We’re close to breaking the deadlock,” Fernando Molina, editor of Pulso magazine, said. “If Morales wins through dialogue – giving in on some things - the opposition will be cornered, but not eliminated, and he can govern easily for years. But if he just crushes them, the conflict will be back.”

Mr Morales’ landslide 2005 election victory ended a series of weak coalition governments stitched together by wealthy elites in the three decades since Bolivia’s last dictatorship.

The historic win welcomed Indians into the halls of power, but the old guard has pushed back hard against Mr Morales’ mandate for change. The president’s confrontational approach and racial rhetoric have only driven them further away.

“This country is ungovernable, no joke,” political analyst Mario Espinoza said this week. “Except maybe if it occurred to someone to show up with an overwhelming military force and kill three or four thousand people, as (the late dictator Augusto) Pinochet did in Chile. Then it would be a piece of cake. But, my God, who wants that?”

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