- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia | Bolivia has become so polarized under leftist President Evo Morales that he has difficulty visiting the nation’s energy-rich and increasingly rebellious eastern provinces without a military escort.

Bolivians in two opposition-controlled states voted overwhelmingly Sunday for autonomy measures that aim to shield the country’s Amazon basin from Mr. Morales’ efforts to nationalize much of the nation’s economy.

Mr. Morales was forced to use a military helicopter loaned by his key regional ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to campaign against pro-autonomy referendums in Beni and Pando provinces, where anti-government groups blocked a local airport.

The two provinces overwhelmingly approved their autonomy, following the lead of Santa Cruz province, which earlier voted for autonomy from the central government.

Bolivia faces a stark divide between the Indian population in its Western highlands, centered around the capital of La Paz, and its resource rich eastern lowlands, which are dominated by people of European descent.

Since taking office in January 2006, Mr. Morales has aligned himself with Mr. Chavez and Cuba’s leadership, adopting a socialist agenda in an attempt to redistribute his nation’s wealth from rich to poor.

Mr. Morales says the autonomy referendums are illegal and that they threaten to divide the country.

Mr. Morales was forced to abort a visit to Beni last week, when hundreds of pro-autonomy militants riding motorcycles drove onto an airport runway to prevent his presidential Lear jet from landing in the provincial capital, Trinidad.

“We had information that Morales was coming to bribe people to abstain from voting,” said Governor Ernesto Suarez of Beni, whose autonomous constitution was estimated to be winning by 80 percent as polls closed Sunday afternoon. A similar measure won in Santa Cruz by 86 percent on May 4.

After returning to the highland capital of La Paz and switching to a Venezuelan air force Super Puma helicopter operated by Venezuelan military personnel, Mr. Morales managed to land at a rally of peasant supporters in a sparsely populated region of Pando on Friday and distribute money for local projects.

About 200 Bolivian army troops took control of the airport as anti-government militants with firearms blocked roads and bridges.

Bolivia’s eastern provinces and the central government based in the Andean highlands are locked in a dispute over moves toward regional self-rule that would create provincial legislatures and local security forces.

A decades-old rivalry between the energy-rich, market-oriented east and the state-dominated western Andes has been an underlying cause for much of the country´s chronic instability, analysts say.

The conflict took an increasingly militant turn beginning with the 2005 election of Mr. Morales.

His policies are aimed at placing land and natural resources under the control of Indian councils loyal to his ruling party. That, in turn, has frightened eastern businessmen, landowners and ranchers into building their own private security forces.

Some historians trace the roots of the conflict to the days of Spanish colonization, when Bolivia´s two halves were administered separately.

The east was settled by Jesuit missionaries, who cultivated relations with local Indian tribes. In contrast, the ancient Inca civilization of the western Andes was enslaved by Spanish military conquistadores who forced Indians to work gold and silver mines.

Mr. Morales called on the army to protect national integrity during speeches in Pando and at an air force base in Santa Cruz on Saturday, where he also demanded that eastern governors join him in a dialogue.

He has proposed a national referendum on his mandate to “let the people decide on whether the policies of the government should continue or not.”

The eastern governors have said that they will not negotiate until the last autonomy referendum, scheduled for June 22, is held in the eastern province of Tarija, which contains an estimated 80 percent of Bolivia’s natural-gas deposits.

The latest opinion polls indicate that despite his growing unpopularity in the east, Mr. Morales retains the overwhelming support of voters around La Paz and his home district of Cochabamba, which would be sufficient to protect him from a nationwide recall vote.

However, Mr. Morales appears to be increasingly relying on outside support to stave off challenges.

At a meeting of South American presidents in May, he suggested that a new regional military alliance being proposed by Brazil and Venezuela be used against “those promoting separatism.”

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