- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Opponents of President Evo Morales hope to draw as many as 1 million residents of the country’s eastern lowlands to rallies demanding regional autonomy despite the threat of military force against them.

The gatherings, known as “cabildos,” are being organized in Santa Cruz and other eastern cities by leaders of a self-styled “Autonomous Democratic Junta” seeking self-rule in the eastern provinces.

“The intransigence and arrogance of the government are leading us towards an inevitable confrontation,” said Carlos Dabdoub, chief spokesman of the Santa Cruz civic committee.

A clash yesterday between supporters of the leftist president and anti-government protesters resulted in 20 protesters being injured, a state official said. The confrontation took place on the road to Santa Cruz, the country’s wealthiest city.

The committee blames Mr. Morales for a breakdown in negotiations over a new constitution and escalating violence between pro-autonomy groups and supporters of the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS).

Army troops were reinforced in eastern Bolivia last week after raids and firebombings against government offices by militant groups calling for outright independence in the more prosperous east.

Mr. Morales, whose political base lies among Indians in the Andes, has threatened to use the army to crush what he sees as a separatist movement dominated by a wealthy local oligarchy opposed to his socialist policies.

“Now that the government does not favor certain families, they want to blackmail the government with separation,” Mr. Morales told cadets in a speech at Bolivia’s military academy on Monday. “I call on the army to preserve the national unity.”

The statement sparked memories of brutal repression unleashed by the ultranationalist dictator Victor Paz Estensoro, who used troops and highland Indian militias to impose control over Santa Cruz during the 1950s.

Racial animosities between lowland “Cambas” — a racial mixture of Europeans and native Guarani Indians — and the Quechuas and Aymaras of the Andes have led to recurrent armed conflicts over the fertile, resource-rich eastern lands.

The divisions were evident in a national referendum on regional autonomy held in July. An overwhelming 70 percent voted in favor of self-rule in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando. A similar majority voted against the measure in the western highlands at the urging of Mr. Morales.

Defense Minister Walker San Miguel has denied that there are plans to impose a state of siege. But MAS has introduced a law to ban the holding of cabildos. Security officials have also threatened to arrest anyone calling for independence.

A security vice minister is heading a “militarized” police unit in Santa Cruz, according to local officials, businessmen and protest leaders, who fear that they could be on a government hit list. Unknown gunmen targeted the home of Santa Cruz civic committee chairman German Antelo this week.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has provided financial backing and security assistance to Mr. Morales. At a summit of Latin American presidents last weekend, Mr. Chavez attacked the autonomy movement as a “plan of imperialism” and offered Venezuelan troops to help Mr. Morales contain any insurrection.

Bolivia and Venezuela signed a military cooperation treaty in August, which provides for the construction of joint army bases in Santa Cruz and Beni.

It also includes provisions for mutual assistance in “pacification” and “disarmament” missions as well as a “reciprocity of command” that would allow Venezuelan officers to direct Bolivian units.

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