- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2006

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Agence France-Presse) — Opponents of leftist President Evo Morales paralyzed four wealthy Bolivian provinces yesterday in protests that turned violent and challenged the fledgling government of the country’s first indigenous president.

In a 24-hour strike, protesters and barricades blocked roads and bridges in roughly half the country’s terrain, from Pando province in the north to the southern province of Tarija, including the two largest provinces, Benin and Santa Cruz, in the east.

The strikes protested Mr. Morales’ bid to rewrite the constitution to redress inequalities endured by the majority native population.

The strike, affecting four of the country’s nine provinces, was organized by civic and business organizations, conservative political parties and even provincial governors.

Protesters blocked border crossings to Brazil and Argentina, and police in the cities of Santa Cruz, Tarija and Cobija, the capital of Pando, used tear gas to quell violent clashes between Morales opponents and supporters.

A group of extreme-right youths attacked stores and a residence that houses Cuban doctors in the city of Santa Cruz, the wealthiest city in the country, Interior Minister Alicia Munoz said.

Unidentified assailants fire-bombed the office of the state-owned television network, she added.

The government called the strike “partial, armed and violent” and said it had been imposed by force by “fascist hordes, hit men” ordered into the streets and highways of the four provinces.

It said the mobilization is being financed by landlords, estate owners and multinational oil companies, whose interests were affected by Mr. Morales’ order to nationalize energy resources in May.

The opposition aims to thwart the efforts by the ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) to reform the constitution to redress socioeconomic inequalities that swept Mr. Morales into office in December.

The MAS, through alliances with other political organizations, won nearly 60 percent of the assembly’s seats in national elections, less than the two-thirds majority needed to push through Mr. Morales’ agenda.

The 255-member special elected assembly opened last month, and is to complete a new constitution by August 2007 so it can be put to a referendum.

The special assembly convened for the project recently scrapped the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote.

A member of the assembly, Jorge Lazarte, said yesterday that preliminary agreements had been reached between government supporters and the opposition that would allow the assembly to begin its work in earnest next week.

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