- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia

Bolivian President Evo Morales, has rushed security forces to protect oil and gas pipelines that export energy from rebellious eastern lowland provinces, where violent protests over the control of Bolivia’s energy reserves threatens to split the nation in two.

A threat by supporters of autonomy in the east to cut off natural-gas supplies to neighbors Brazil and Argentina has brought the potential conflict to a head.

Eastern militant groups demanding a share of recently nationalized energy reserves, seized an important gas-pumping station in the town of Yacuiba last week.

The seizure followed calls from the governors of Bolivia’s four eastern provinces - Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando - for greater self-rule and increased revenue from energy exports.

Mr. Morales responded by airlifting more than 1,000 elite security forces to guard a gas pipeline network that runs from the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija, into neighboring Brazil and Argentina.

The response led to an uneasy standoff between local, pro-autonomy militants surrounding six major valve stations and national security forces - the latest escalation in regional tension that have plagued Bolivia since Mr. Morales took power in 2006.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim warned last week that his government was seriously monitoring the conflict in Bolivia and the possible disruption of a gas pipeline supplying 75 percent of energy needs to Brazil’s largest city and business capital, Sao Paolo.

“We are analyzing how the Bolivian government can guarantee the integrity of the pipeline network,” said Mr. Amorim, who stated that his government was prepared to “open direct contacts with eastern governors if necessary.”

Bolivia faces a stark ethnic divide between its eastern population with some European ancestry and its Indian population of the western Andean highlands.

Mr. Morales, the nation’s first Indian president, was elected on a platform to nationalize key industries and redistribute wealth to the nation’s impoverished Indian population.

Anti-Morales demonstrators have formed a regional coordinating body in the east known by the Spanish acronym CONALDE, which also ordered takeovers of government installations and road blockades.

Regional and ethnic fault lines cracked open last month when Mr. Morales called for a national referendum on a new constitution that would place the eastern lowlands and its natural resources under state control.

Demographics suggest that the proposed charter would likely win a national vote.

Mr. Morales scored a 67 percent majority in a referendum on his rule last month.

Story Continues →