Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Vote That May Strengthen Bolivian President Evo Morales

August 9, 2008

A Vote That May Strengthen Bolivian Leader

New York Times

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Faced with calls in a rebellious province for a military coup and with spreading protests that have kept him from landing his plane in parts of the country, President Evo Morales is pressing ahead with plans for a national referendum on Sunday intended to determine whether he and his top regional rivals should remain in office.

But analysts here expect the vote to heighten political tension in Bolivia, often described as South America’s poorest country, instead of relieving it.

If Mr. Morales prevails in the referendum, his political opponents in relatively prosperous lowland provinces have vowed not to recognize the results, describing the president’s stifling of judicial criticism of the vote as illegal.

“This government has not learned how to govern, and for that reason I ask the armed forces to overthrow the president of the republic,” Percy Fernández, the mayor of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest and richest city and a bastion of separatist groups, said Thursday. The mayor’s comments infuriated Mr. Morales and his senior advisers.

The stakes of the referendum are high for the United States, with Mr. Morales, a leader of Bolivia’s coca growers union, fanning anti-American sentiment with accusations of coup-plotting by American diplomats and of secret eradication units of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in coca-growing areas.

A mob of 20,000 marched to the gates of the American Embassy here in June, throwing dynamite at the police and threatening to burn the building down.

Many supporters of Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian who is the country’s first president to explicitly identify with his indigenous roots, remain furious over the flight into exile in the United States of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and some officials of his government.

The officials stand accused of allowing the killing of 56 demonstrators in 2003.

Tension with the United States has eased since June, but Brazil and Argentina are also closely watching events here, with Bolivia remaining their largest source of imported natural gas.

Cocaine smuggling across the border to the two countries has also been increasing since coca cultivation climbed 5 percent in 2007, according to United Nations figures.

Mr. Morales tried to quash any talk of military discontent by leading an independence parade on Thursday in Cochabamba of 2,500 troops and 2,500 indigenous representatives. A radical faction called the Red Ponchos, an Aymara Indian group from the high plains that supports the president, led the indigenous portion of the parade.

Mr. Morales also announced a new allotment of $30 million for Bolivia’s navy, an institution of high nationalistic importance even though the country is landlocked, having lost its coastline to neighboring Chile in a 19th-century war.

Still, chances of a military uprising are considered extremely low.

“Why would the military want to open that Pandora’s box?” asked Gonzalo Chávez, a Harvard-educated economist at the Catholic University of La Paz. “There is no broad support for a military option to a crisis that is evolving to a higher level of ungovernability.”

Two miners were killed in violent protests this week, and demonstrators in the gas-rich department of Tarija prevented Mr. Morales from meeting there on Tuesday with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, whose financial and military aid to Mr. Morales’s government is chafed at in parts of Bolivia.

Despite the spreading protests, Mr. Morales is expected to win the referendum, with support among Aymara and Quechua Indians in the highlands remaining strong. But the vote’s rules, drafted to make it easier to oust governors than the president, may open a new stage of confrontation if some of the governors lose.

That outcome would allow Mr. Morales to pick the governors’ successors, which could aggravate tension in some areas over redistributing petroleum royalties to bolster social security payments for impoverished elderly citizens. Political leaders in eastern Santa Cruz began a hunger strike this week aimed at recovering a portion of the royalties.

Yet while Mr. Morales and his opponents square off over specific policies, the vote on Sunday also revolves around the president’s broader ambitions to reconfigure Bolivia’s political system to benefit the country’s indigenous peoples, who make up more than 60 percent of Bolivia’s 10 million inhabitants.

Despite discontent in several provinces that have drafted their own autonomy statutes, with vague prospects of how they could be put into effect, Mr. Morales has higher approval ratings than any Bolivian president in recent memory, about 60 percent. Partly because of high prices for the country’s mining exports, the economy may grow 6 percent this year.

But with inflation of 9.5 percent trailing only Venezuela and Argentina among Latin American countries, Mr. Morales has increasingly found himself on the defensive, lashing out at the United States and the political opposition. At the inauguration of a gas pipeline last month, he explained his view of revolutionary priorities and the law.

“When a jurist tells me, ‘Evo, you are making a legal mistake; what you are doing is illegal,’ I go ahead even if it’s illegal,” Mr. Morales said. “I later tell the lawyers, ‘If it’s illegal, you make it legal. Otherwise, what have you studied for?’ ”

Bolivia’s fractious judicial system, with some pro-Morales judges supporting the referendum and others denouncing irregularities, has seemingly found a reflection in the streets of some of Bolivia’s largest cities. Crowds adulate Mr. Morales in La Paz, but safe passage for the president cannot be guaranteed in some regional capitals.

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