Bolivia’s leftist government and rebel rightwing governors were readying yesterday for negotiations aimed at ending a bitter and enduring political conflict that last week blew up into deadly violence.
Bolivian President Evo Morales was expected to engage his foes in the talks after South American presidents holding a crisis summit on Monday gave him their “full and firm” support and rejected any breakup of Bolivia.
His vice president and ministers met over Monday night with one of the five governors demanding autonomy for their eastern states to fix the parameters of the upcoming talks.
The conflict has been bubbling along since Morales, a former coca farmer and union leader, became president in 2006 and set about imposing reforms designed to benefit the indigenous majority he belongs to.
Matters came to a head last month when Morales called a Dec. 7 referendum on a rewritten Constitution that would break up big land holdings and redistribute revenues from natural gas.
Anti-government rallies sprang up in the rebel states, where the governors demanded more control over gas fields and militants set up roadblocks to separate the economically vital eastern lowlands from the poorer Andean western half of Bolivia. Government offices and airports were taken over by stone-throwing mobs, and residents clashed in several areas. In the northern state of Pando, they turned deadly, with at least 18 people dead and 100 wounded.
Defense Minister Walker San Miguel said 11 people suspected of “heading or instigating” gangs alleged to have gunned down people in Pando had been arrested and taken to La Paz.
The government has accused Pando’s governor, Leopoldo Fernandez, of having a hand in the killings. His state has been under martial law since Saturday. One soldier and one civilian were killed over the weekend after the military moved in.
Morales, when he arrived in Santiago, Chile, for Monday’s six-hour summit, charged that the coalition of rebel governors had tried to mount a “civic coup” against him.
The meeting with the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela resulted in a unanimous statement warning that all the governments represented “energetically reject and will not recognize any situation that attempts a civil coup and the rupture of institutional order and which could compromise the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia.”
It also condemned the deaths in Pando and called for a commission to investigate allegations of a “massacre.”
The harsh words Morales reserved for his political enemies did not augur well for the planned talks.
Morales was also embroiled in a diplomatic row with the US, after ordering the US ambassador out of the country for allegedly giving support to the opposition.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Bolivian leader’s main ally, followed suit, expelling the US ambassador to Caracas.
The president of Honduras added to the show of solidarity by refusing a new US envoy, while Nicaragua’s leader, Daniel Ortega, snubbed an invitation to meet US President George W. Bush on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly later this month.
A furious Washington expelled the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors in retaliation.
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