Thu, Nov 30, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Morales signs controversial land reform bill into law

AGRARIAN REFORM The law allowing land considered unproductive to be seized was passed by the Senate despite an opposition boycott, thanks to two stand-ins

AFP , LA PAZ

Bolivian President Evo Morales shakes hands with one of the nation's Indigenous people during the signing of a new Land Reform Bill at the parliament building in La Paz minutes before midnight on Tuesday.

PHOTO: EPA

Bolivian President Evo Morales signed into law a sweeping agrarian reform bill that distributes land to the poor but threatens to spark violence with government opponents.

Hundreds of indigenous Bolivians danced and cheered outside the presidential palace early yesterday celebrating the move.

Morales signed the law in a publicly ceremony just before midnight Tuesday, only minutes after it was passed by the Senate.

Large landowners in the eastern Agricultural regions of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando strongly opposed the new law, which grants the government power to seize land deemed unproductive.

Eight civic groups representing powerful eastern Bolivian interests threatened a regional strike starting yesterday if pro-government measures, including land reform, were approved.

Supporters of Morales and the eastern regional groups have clashed violently in the past, most recently on Monday.

Speaking yesterday to supporters, Morales said the measure marked "the end of large estates" in Bolivia.

"Now we have the legal instrument to finish the large landowners in eastern Bolivia," he said.

The bill, which the chamber of deputies passed two weeks ago, was approved by a narrow quorum of 15 senators in the 27-member upper-house.

The conservative opposition, which holds 13 Senate seats, boycotted the vote. But in a surprise move substitute representatives of two opposition lawmakers showed up to vote for the measure, which outraged opposition leaders.

"They were bribed," said opposition senator Jose Villavicencio, offering no proof to his charges.

The two substitute senators, Andres Heredia and Hector Vargas, denied they had been bribed, and the head of the Senate, Santos Ramirez, praised their vote as "honest" and hailed the "historic consequences to the country and its majorities."

Earlier, thousands of indigenous protesters who had come from across the country chanted "Land, Damn it!" at a La Paz rally. Some had walked as far as 500km in marches launched several weeks ago from the Andean mountains and plains of Bolivia.

"We will not leave with empty hands," said Oscar Nunez, leader of the confederation of indigenous people of Bolivia. "We want title to property."

Morales faced fierce opposition, especially in eastern Bolivia, to the land reform bill as well as other plans to rewrite the Constitution and exert more authority over regional governors. Morales' opponents have launched their own protests and a series of hunger strikes, accusing the president of trampling democracy in his effort to push through a radical reform agenda.

The leader of the conservative opposition, former president Jorge Quiroga, said he too was ready for more talks with the leftist government to defuse the growing crisis.

But he said that the government must respect the law and uphold a requirement for a two-thirds majority to approve any changes to the constitution proposed by a Constituent Assembly.

The pro-government Movement Toward Socialism party pushed through a rule change that requires only a simple majority for revising the Constitution -- effectively shutting out the opposition.

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