- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales is in danger of losing control of Bolivia’s wealthy eastern lowlands, where opposition to his socialist agenda is growing and local authorities are demanding autonomy from the central government based at La Paz in the impoverished western highlands.

Ninety percent of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon reserves are located between Santa Cruz and Tarija, where Mario Cossio, the newly elected governor, has been seeking support from neighboring Paraguay and Argentina to declare a separate state.

“The east will inevitably move toward independence within a year,” said Arturo Mendivil, a lawyer and popular radio host in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest urban center, with a population of 1.5 million.

The Quechua and Aymara Indian communities that dominate the western Andes and form the bedrock of Mr. Morales’ support still harbor an egalitarian culture and welcome the socialist economic policies of Bolivia’s first Indian president, the lawyer said.

White immigrants have mixed more easily with native Indian Guaranis in the eastern plains and forests, by contrast, “creating a European-style entrepreneurial society that has turned Santa Cruz into a corporate center and economic powerhouse,” said local historian Miguel Angel Sandoval.

Racial and ethnic divisions are another source of friction. Santa Cruz beauty queen Gabriela Oviedo caused an uproar when, as Miss Bolivia 2004, she told journalists in Miami that “not all Bolivians are dark, short and poor. In Santa Cruz, we are tall, fair-skinned and educated.”

Mr. Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) won elections in December with more than 60 percent of the vote in the high Andes. But MAS captured barely a third of votes in the four lower departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, where elected governors favor local independence and are now the bastion of the right-wing Podemos party.

“What we should really fear is armed confrontation,” Mr. Morales told the Santa Cruz chamber of commerce last month. He called on the local business leadership to back his project for a new constitution, promising to include provisions for limited local government.

Although a Santa Cruz supermarket owner, Salvador Ric, has joined Mr. Morales’ Cabinet, most eastern businessmen are suspicious of MAS, which plans to nationalize the region’s gas fields.

“I would give my life for the nationalization of natural resources,” Mr. Morales said last Tuesday in the oil town of Camiri, where he announced that the nationalization measures would become effective July 12.

The Santa Cruz elite also blame the government’s refusal to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States for a loss of agricultural markets.

“Bolivia on the verge of civil war,” read a recent banner headline in the Santa Cruz newspaper El Mundo, during tense negotiations in which regional leaders threatened to boycott a constitutional assembly unless they were allowed to conduct binding referendums on self-rule.

“We are prepared to die to defend our process of autonomy,” said eastern parliamentary deputy Roxanna Gentile.

Eastern youth groups signed up volunteers for an armed militia, and indigenous leaders in La Paz called for violent takeovers of eastern institutions during the negotiations. MAS militants were beaten on Santa Cruz streets and forced out of local labor unions.

Eager to avoid bloodshed, the government finally agreed to a compromise on the constitutional assembly. But easterners still fear that they will not be able to block the president’s plans to nationalize hydrocarbon deposits and seize large private landholdings.

Mr. Morales also has been attacked by eastern indigenous leaders who resent MAS efforts to control their communities. While trying to rally support from the main Guarani Indian organization in Santa Cruz last week, he was heckled off the stage with calls of “usurper,” “liar” and “thief.”

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