Monday, November 26, 2007

Sucre riots test Morales' resolve for change in Bolivia

A power struggle between Bolivian president Evo Morales and his conservative opponents has now erupted on a new front: the status of the country’s constitutional capital Sucre. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters in Sucre on the weekend. The protesters were demanding the full relocation of the country’s legislature and seat of government from La Paz.

So far two civilians and one policeman have died and a further 130 people have been injured in street clashes that have gone in the third day. Protesters hurled rocks, Molotov cocktails and dynamite at police. Morales blamed former president Jorge Quiroga and “criminal groups” for the riots. Morales easily defeated Quiroga in the last election and he (Quiroga) leads the right-wing coalition known as the Social and Democratic Power. Morales said some groups don’t accept an indigenous leader.

Morales was speaking in the wake of the Bolivian parliament approval of a new constitution. The controversial changes would permit his indefinite re-election and would give central authorities greater control over public revenue at the expense of state governments. Morales’s opponents still control the Senate and boycotted the vote. They say the new constitution unfairly reduces the power of Bolivia's nine states. Wealthy Sucre has become a fulcrum for opposition demands for civil disobedience in the regions they govern.

Land redistribution has been a key issue in Bolivia for the last fifty years. Morales’s Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party made a comprehensive agrarian reform plan a central plank of the new constitution. Morales and MAS is trying to overturn decades of land redistribution which has ended up with 4 percent of the landowners possessing 82 per cent of the land. The government believes the constitutional changes will fulfil economic and social provisions aimed righting injustices against the indigenous population.

Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America. The poverty is concentrated in the Indian population which makes up 60 percent of the population. Infant mortality has halved to 60 deaths per thousand due to recent improvements on health and education but remains one of the highest in the western hemisphere. The country’s best hope to alleviate poverty is in the growing oil and gas industry. Morales initially threatened to nationalise the industry but so far has just increased taxes. With high oil and gas prices, the government’s income from the industry has increased nine fold between 2002 and 2007.

Evo Morales is relying on his own high personal popularity to get his constitutional amendments through. In 2005 he was the first elected indigenous president in Bolivia’s history. His election prompted fears of a civil war between the Indian and the wealthy white population which did not eventuate. The opposition is backed by the Bush administration who have attacked Morales regime as “undemocratic” and a “champion of false populism”. Morales is unconcerned by attacks from Washington and plans to press ahead with his changes. “The constitution will be approved in a referendum by the people, which is the most democratic,” he said.

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