- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia — Demonstrators loyal to President Evo Morales continued their weeklong vigil in this central Bolivian city on Sunday, calling for the opposition-aligned state governor to resign for backing a movement to give the country’s nine states greater autonomy.

Cochabamba, 140 miles southeast of La Paz, was calm over the weekend after street battles between coca growers and supporters of Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa on Thursday left two dead and more than 130 injured.

Elected 13 months ago as Bolivia’s first South American Indian president, Mr. Morales remains the leader of Bolivia’s largest and most politically powerful coca growers’ union, whose members are among the president’s most fervent backers.

At a press conference Saturday night at the union’s Cochabamba headquarters, Mr. Morales said the protesters are justified in their demand. He congratulated them for avoiding further violence.

“They’re asking for his resignation, which is legitimate though not legal,” Mr. Morales said. “Within the frame of democracy, we can seek a solution.”

Mr. Morales has proposed legislation to allow recall votes against elected officials. The measure faces a tough battle in Bolivia’s conservative-controlled Senate, where lawmakers likely will see the leftist president’s proposal as a way to silence his most prominent critics.

Mr. Morales’ efforts to expand his executive power have incensed opposition governors, who head six of Bolivia’s nine states. Several of these states have long sought greater autonomy from the central government.

The president also has proposed a bill allowing Congress to remove state governors from office for improperly handling government funds, with the presidency holding the final judgment.

On Saturday, Mr. Morales cited new accusations of corruption made by the coca growers’ unions against Mr. Reyes, including bookkeeping irregularities and using state funds to reward rural towns that agreed to support opponents of the president. Mr. Morales did not provide any evidence to support the coca growers’ charges.

The coca growers joined other Cochabamba unions in protest of Mr. Reyes last month after he began criticizing the president publicly. The governor has backed state autonomy and denounced the president’s efforts to control an assembly rewriting Bolivia’s constitution.

Mr. Reyes and Mr. Morales have both called for dialogue to end the impasse but cannot agree on a location for the talks.

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