- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — A “revolutionary” land reform program proclaimed last week by President Evo Morales has been met with stiff opposition in eastern Bolivia, where the announcement heightened ethnic tensions and alarmed landlords.

The scheme to redistribute thousands of square miles to Indians and landless peasants — beginning with idle state-owned land — has triggered a wave of protests in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, where fertile grasslands and forests are the main target of the decree.

While announcing the plan to give away about 6 million acres to “original indigenous peoples” and the “most needy sectors of the peasantry,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera tried to assure businessmen that productive land would not be confiscated.

“No one will expropriate lands. Property which is serving an economic or social function is guaranteed,” Mr. Garcia said. The decree follows a similarly abrupt nationalization of hydrocarbons earlier this month, when troops occupied the offices of private oil companies.

Major eastern landowners and agricultural interests, some of whom have been personally criticized by Mr. Morales, fear that land reform will be used to break the private sector and conservative opposition while rewarding radical peasant organizations backing the government.

Within hours of the government’s announcement, land invasions were reported around the town of Guarayos, where the Landless Movement based in the capital, La Paz, took over 5,000 acres belonging to a chief executive of the Santa Cruz telecommunications company Cotas. “Peasants from the high plain are arriving en masse,” said the town’s mayor, Robert Shok.

An invasion by Quechua and Aymara Indians from the impoverished western high Andes, who form the electoral base of the ruling Movement toward Socialism, has long been feared by whites as well as some native Guarani Indian communities of eastern Bolivia.

“It seems like this whole project is geared toward the colonization of the eastern lowlands by ethnic strains from the high plain,” said Jose Cespedes, president of the Agricultural Chamber of the East, who spoke at a huge protest rally in the town of Trinidad.

Some of the speakers called on locals to take up arms and warned there would be “rivers of blood.”

Civic leaders in Santa Cruz demanded that locally elected governors be put in charge of administering any land redistribution. Primitivo Montanez, a local peasant leader, proposed a plan for property to be given only to members of local Guarani tribes.

Protests continued over the weekend despite warnings from the vice president that the government would be “hard and insensitive against those resisting land reform and spreading unfounded rumors about land occupations.”

Meeting with Bolivia’s nine regional governors on Friday, Mr. Morales offered to establish a “dialogue” on land reform but otherwise gave no concessions to eastern landowners. Instead, Vice Minister for Land Bienvenido Sacu warned that Santa Cruz’s business association director, Branko Marinkovic, could lose almost 30,000 acres of property.

Mr. Morales also has threatened “reprisals” against the powerful landowning Monasterios family, which owns the Santa Cruz television station Unitel, which brazenly opposes him.


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