- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia

President Evo Morales’ plans to turn Bolivia into a socialist state modeled on Venezuela and Cuba have hit an unexpected snag over a 100-year-old rivalry between two cities vying to be the nation’s capital.

The dispute has deadlocked a constitutional convention and threatens to turn violent, with Indians from the high plains of the current capital, La Paz, threatening to march on Sucre, the historic capital and site of the convention.

“The issue of ‘capitality’ should not be in the debate,” Mr. Morales said at a recent military ceremony. “Someone wanting to change the capital only seeks confrontation.”

He was referring to Indian groups in Bolivia’s central valley surrounding Sucre, who are demanding that Sucre be renamed the capital as it was before an 1896 civil war.

“We have to remain loyal to our region,” said Edgar Arrayo, a member of Mr. Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, who warned that ignoring demands to switch the capital “would cause the constitutional assembly to fail.”

Mr. Morales became president in January 2006 with the backing of a broad coalition of poor Indian groups, including the now feuding MAS blocs from La Paz and Sucre.

The dispute prompted Mr. Morales to postpone an Aug. 6 deadline for the year-old convention to finish its work, which he hopes will institutionalize efforts to nationalize resources and redistribute property from landowners to peasants.

A group calling itself the Emergency Committee for the Defense of La Paz last week threatened to retaliate against anyone advocating that the capital be moved to Sucre.

The group also began planning for a march on Sucre, a six-hour bus ride from La Paz, which would put the two angry blocs face to face.

Even before the rupture in the MAS coalition, the convention was in trouble.

Although the MAS enjoys a majority, it falls short of the two-thirds majority needed to control the convention.

“I feel that at this stage there is insufficient time for our constituents to finish with the debates in the commissions and in the plenary sessions,” Mr. Morales said last week.

Sucre still hosts Bolivia’s Supreme Court, but MAS delegates from the region say that La Paz “stole” its executive and legislative powers.

“Morales needs time to repair MAS,” said Hugo Acha, a prominent opposition lawyer and television commentator.

“The assembly has failed as a point of understanding between the Bolivian people. It’s only dividing the country along regional and ethnic fault lines,” he said, comparing the situation to the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Apart from the standoff in Sucre, Bolivia suffers from other ethnic and regional divisions

Governors of Bolivia’s eastern regions, including Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, have formed an “autonomous junta” to draft a separate constitution for their part of the country, which voted overwhelmingly for self-rule in a referendum last year.

Local landowners have responding by calling for “resistance cells” to defend the eastern provinces. Graffiti slogans accusing Mr. Morales of being a “Communist” and saying “Chavez, go home” are common throughout Santa Cruz.

The latter slogan refers to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an anti-American populist who boasts of remaking his oil-rich nation as a socialist state modeled on Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The constitutional convention in Sucre, meanwhile, has suffered violence.

In one of many incidents over recent weeks, a group of students protesting against government proposals for social control on education attempted to burn down the assembly hall where delegates meet.

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