- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Coca growers and supporters of leftist President Evo Morales set fire to the governor’s palace in the city center of Cochabamba Monday night in an effort to topple Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa, a key supporter of U.S. anti-drug efforts and a leader of the conservative opposition.

Thousands of demonstrators vowed to maintain roadblocks on key national highways into Cochabamba yesterday, a day after police used tear gas in an effort to disperse a rock-throwing mob, which had surrounded the offices of the governor since Friday.

The siege was lifted, but Morales administration officials criticized the police response as excessive, and Interior Minister Alicia Munoz fired Cochabamba’s new police chief, Wilge Bleas, for “repressing the people.”

More than 30 people were injured, including 11 policemen and nine journalists who were the targets of beatings and rocks thrown by pro-government demonstrators. One coca grower lost an eye from pellets fired by police.

The Cochabamba governor escaped, disguised in a police uniform as protesters broke down doors to the Spanish colonial-style palace and fire-bombed offices.

“I will not resign,” said Mr. Reyes Villa from a private residence where he went into hiding. “I will not betray those who elected me,” he said.

The violence shows Bolivia’s increasing polarization under Mr. Morales, a former coca grower and union organizer who has moved the country sharply to the left since taking office in January. Mr. Reyes Villa is a former presidential candidate and a fierce critic of the president, the first indigenous Indian president in the country’s history.

Opposition politicians claim that Mr. Morales is trying to silence them as part of an effort to push through radical measures to legalize coca farming, redistribute land to peasant supporters and impose of a new constitution drafted by his ruling Movement Toward Socialism, known by its Spanish acronym, MAS.

Several Morales aides accused Mr. Reyes Villa of provoking the violence by calling for a new referendum on local autonomy in Cochabamba and supporting independence for the neighboring region of Santa Cruz — a bastion of opposition to Mr. Morales.

“To call for another public consultation can be considered to be at least a political provocation,” said Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, who accused “some governors of supporting the division and confrontation between Bolivians.”

Mr. Garcia Linera had called for a campaign to “isolate” and “neutralize” opposition governors at a MAS strategy session on the outskirts of Cochabamba last week. He warned about a “new right” being formed against the government by “an alliance between certain regional governors and civic leaders.”

Although Mr. Morales was elected president with 54 percent of the vote in the December 2005 vote, opposition politicians won six of Bolivia’s nine governorships.

Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas called Monday’s incidents “an attack on democracy,” and civic leader German Antelo blamed the government for “any violence and bloody confrontations that may result.”

According to regional officials speaking on the condition of anonymity, the Cochabamba governor has become a direct channel for international anti-drug assistance to support the U.S.-sponsored Alternative Development Program (ADP), which subsidizes farmers to plant legitimate crops.

Last month, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg announced a further 25 percent cut in aid to the central government, after Mr. Morales announced the legalization of some 50,000 acres of coca, nearly doubling the legally permitted harvest.

Differences over drug policy have led to a two-thirds reduction in U.S. aid to Bolivia to $33 million over the past year. The State Department has publicly opposed Mr. Morales’ policy of allowing farmers to grow coca legally and to “industrialize” coca production with aid from the government of anti-U.S. leftist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Anti-drug operations are coming under increasing pressure.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officers are no longer allowed to accompany police units on patrol. The embassy announced the evacuation of a U.S. Agency for International Development hospital in the coca-growing Yungas valley after it was attacked by coca farmers.

Mr. Morales last week imposed further restrictions on Americans by demanding visas for U.S. citizens entering Bolivia.

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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