Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Strikes and clashes continue in Bolivia over the drafting of a new constitution


Lawmakers appealed for compromise in deeply polarized Bolivia, after opponents of President Evo Morales stayed home from work and blocked key thoroughfares in four cities to protest his party's handling of an assembly rewriting the country's Constitution.

"We're headed -- both parties, the opposition and the government -- to extreme positions," said Jose Ona, a congressman from the conservative party Podemos, on Friday. "We have to try to create a dialogue and arrive at the type of conversations that can avoid these conflicts."

Throughout the day, national television broadcast images of scattered street fights between conservative strikers and Morales supporters.

Conservative leaders called the one-day work stoppage to protest efforts by Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS) to assert absolute control over the Constituent Assembly, which convened last month to draw up a new charter for South America's poorest country.

Morales, elected last December as Bolivia's first Indian president, envisions a new constitution that will undo the centuries-old dominance of the European-descended elite and create more opportunities for the country's poor Indian majority.

Opponents argue the MAS is trying to expand the president's power without recognizing the demand by four wealthier eastern states for greater autonomy from the federal government.

Ruben Costas, governor of the state of Santa Cruz, an opposition stronghold whose capital was the center of Friday's strike, said the protest represented "a new hope in the east."

"We are fighting for democracy, for rule of law, for the unity of the country," Costas told demonstrators on Friday. "Santa Cruz has taken a central role in this country to save those principles."

Strike leaders had hoped to paralyze the entire states of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando -- home to a third of Bolivia's 9 million inhabitants -- but the protest on Friday was largely limited to the states' four capital cities.

Government Minister Alicia Munoz called the strike a "resounding failure," and the Morales administration released a statement blaming "regionalist oligarchies" for calling a strike "that a large part of the states involved reject."

Morales stayed out of public view on Friday, canceling a scheduled appearance at the graduation ceremony of a Cuban-sponsored adult literacy program in La Paz.

In Santa Cruz -- Bolivia's largest city -- residents took to the streets chanting "Autonomy!" and waving the state's green-and-white flag.

MAS supporters turned out as well, and the two groups clashed in the city's poor Plan 3,000 neighborhood. Police dispersed the crowds with tear gas.

While strike leaders claimed to have halted 50 percent of Bolivia's economy on Friday, analysts said the true figure was likely much lower.

"The real question is whether or not this will have a political impact," said Horst Grebe, a former economic development minister.

Constitutional delegates on Friday returned to the negotiating table to hash out the body's rules of order, which have yet to be decided despite a month of heated talks and occasional shoving matches on the assembly floor.

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