- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales appears to be getting help from the man he toppled from office to secure passage of his radical new constitution that would subdivide Bolivia into 45 “indigenous nations” ruled by local Indian councils.

Followers of the exiled former right-wing President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who lives in the United States, voted last week for state ownership of land and natural resources during embattled sessions of the constitutional assembly in the Bolivian city of Sucre.

Opponents of the proposal say remnants of Mr. Sanchez's Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), represented by a tiny delegation at the constitutional assembly, are striking a deal with Mr. Morales‘ ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). The deal could delay efforts to get Mr. Sanchez extradited to face trial on corruption and other charges, they said.

“There are indications that the government is indefinitely stalling proceedings to extradite Sanchez from the United States,” said a deputy of the mainline conservative party, Podemos, whose delegates were shut out of key hearings Thursday at which MNR delegates voted.

If true, this would add an ironic new twist to Bolivia’s political crisis that began when Mr. Morales led a 2003 Indian revolt against Mr. Sanchez’s privatization policies, which forced him out of office. Mr. Morales subsequently won elections in 2005 on a pledge to prosecute Mr. Sanchez for corruption and human rights violations.

Mr. Sanchez, who lives in Chevy Chase, is accused of responsibility in the deaths of 67 persons, corrupt oil deals with the now-defunct Enron Corp. and the theft of an estimated $250 million from Bolivia’s central bank.

A conservative delegate to the constitutional assembly, Gamal Serhan, said that “the MNR has been continually negotiating” with MAS, whose majority of assembly delegates falls short of the two-thirds required to approve the constitution.

Mr. Serhan pointed out that the recently named MNR leader, Guillermo Richter, who heads the party’s eight delegates, is the legal defense attorney for Mr. Sanchez.

MNR delegate Ana Maria Ruiz, who voted to unblock passage of key constitutional provisions this month, insists that there is no secret deal. “It’s absolutely false,” she said. “I voted out of conscience.”

There were further indications last week that Mr. Morales was moving to accommodate elements of the former regime. He appointed a former general who commanded troops that fired on protesters during the bloody 2003 “Black October” riots, to head the customs office. This is considered an important appointment at a time when increased smuggling of gas and diesel is causing shortages among the population.

The government’s constitutional assembly spokesman, Carlos Pinto, said the government was “building a bridge” between neo-liberalism and Mr. Morales‘ brand of socialism. He insisted that there is no deal with Mr. Sanchez, which he said would amount to “treason.”

Podemos leaders were not convinced.

“How else do you explain that they have not yet officially presented proof of his crimes or of a supreme court-approved 2005 congressional authorization for his trial to the U.S. government?” asked party deputy Mario Cronenbold.

According to international lawyers, Mr. Morales can request the preventive detention of Mr. Sanchez for up to 60 days but has neglected to do so. “Instead he goes around peasant rallies blaming the Americans for hiding” Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Serhan said.

U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg told reporters three months ago that no official extradition request had been received by the U.S. Embassy and urged the Bolivian government to “follow the proper procedure.”

Instead, the government filed an arrest warrant through Interpol “which they know has no jurisdiction on the matter because Bolivia has a direct bilateral extradition treaty with the U.S.,” Mr. Cronenbold said.

Lawyers involved in the case say there have been few efforts to try Mr. Sanchez in absentia and that the government could be waiting for the three-year statute of limitations to expire on him.

“The government is desperate to gain legitimacy for its constitution and [Mr. Sanchez] is desperate to avoid extradition. It’s a confluence of interests,” said Mr. Serhan, who calls the MAS constitutional model “a totalitarian system of Indian-dominated Soviets.”

Mr. Pinto says the government has moderated earlier Indian demands for “indigenous domination.” The current text states that “land and natural resources are the property of the Bolivian people to be administered through a plurinational state with representation of indigenous peoples.”

Some international legal experts say the constitution is even designed to incorporate Indian communities from outside Bolivia.

A delegation of North American Sioux Indians met earlier this month.

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