Bolivia ‘close’ to split after violence, eastern strike

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SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Racial and economic tensions tearing at the social fabric of Bolivia have been laid bare by a general strike on Friday that sparked violent clashes and paralyzed the eastern half of the country.

“We are very close to a separation of the two regions of Bolivia,” said Ruben Dario Cuellar, a deputy for the conservative Podemos party, which accuses President Evo Morales of trying to force through a new constitution that would institutionalize an indigenous socialist state.

All commerce and transport halted during the daylong work stoppage called by opposition leaders and regional governors in the four eastern provinces that produce 60 percent of Bolivia’s economic output.

Pro-government groups trying to break the strike clashed in several eastern cities with members of civic and militant youth organizations that favor regional independence for Bolivia’s wealthiest provinces.

Mr. Morales accused his opponents of seeking to “sabotage” the constituent assembly in which his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party has a majority of delegates. He also called the strike “racist” and said the opposition wanted to “humiliate the original indigenous people of Bolivia.”

But Mr. Cuellar said the country is “divided between two visions. The west wants to take us back a thousand years to a savage primitivism while the east wants to move toward the future through a culture of free enterprise.”

MAS scored barely a quarter of votes in Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando during recent balloting, in which the four eastern departments voted overwhelmingly for regional autonomy.

Mountainous western Bolivia strongly backed the central government, but fell short of delivering the two-thirds majority required to force constitutional changes that would restrict private enterprise and empower a peasant-controlled “council of original peoples.”

The assembly fell apart when opposition leaders protested rulings by MAS Assembly President Sylvia Lazarte, a Quechua coca farmer, that would allow key clauses to be approved by a simple majority.

The conflict is also marked by racial animosities. Eastern lowland “cambas” are a mix of European whites and Guarani Indians. The western Andean region is mainly composed of Quechua and Aymara Indians.

Santa Cruz civic leader German Antelo warned at a weekend press conference that the opposition will adopt “further measures” if the government does not give in to regional demands.

“They have until Thursday to agree to our conditions for restoring two-thirds majority and recognize regional autonomy,” he said.

The coordinator of civic committees, Mariano Aguilera, says that eastern Bolivia is going to hold its own constitutional assembly.

“If they want their Aymara nation in the west, let them have it. We can write our own constitution here in the east,” he said.

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