Tuesday, October 3, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — A powerful assembly controlled by Bolivia’s ruling party meets today to write a radical constitution that would enshrine state ownership of natural resources and the principal of “communal” property.

Critics fear government efforts to reorganize the system of government could lead to totalitarianism or the country’s disintegration.

“Until now, Bolivia has had 18 constituent assemblies derived from established powers which haven’t changed anything,” President Evo Morales told his delegates last weekend.

“We need an assembly that will be refoundational, plenipotentiary and participatory for Bolivia’s original peoples,” said Mr. Morales, who contends that the country’s majority Indian races were not represented when the country was established in 1825.

Opposition leaders say the ruling Movement to Socialism party (MAS) is violating a special law for constitutional reform passed by the Bolivian Congress in February with the approval of all the country’s political parties.

The law stipulates that constitutional changes must be approved by two-thirds of the assembled delegates. But that was changed by a simple majority of votes during a tense late-night session Thursday in which opposition delegates complained of being intimidated and denied the right to speak.

“The assembly was not elected to be plenipotentiary or to override the constituted powers,” said Ruben Dario Cuellar, the chief delegate of the conservative Podemos party. Mr. Cuellar was threatened by Indian women brandishing whips in front of TV cameras and had his microphone turned off during his speech.

“We are headed toward totalitarianism,” said political analyst Julio Cesar Caballero.

Governors of Bolivia’s eastern lowland regions, who fear the government seeks to derail their plans for regional autonomy, have denounced the assembly as “illegitimate.”

MAS leaders insist they remain respectful of existing institutions and will submit the constitution to a national referendum after the assembly approves a draft next year.

The government has no plan to shut down the Congress and will continue seeking consensus with other groups, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said Monday.

Some delegates from the right-of-center National Unity party have voted with MAS.

“I’m thinking about a sort of great commission. Like a car with technicians and leaders that would circulate the country picking up proposals about what the community is thinking about change, what it wants written in the constitution,” Mr. Morales said.

“There are small groupings of power which are trying to dismantle the constitutional assembly because they are afraid of losing their privileges,” said Agriculture Minister Hugo Salvatierra, who complained that eastern landowners are blocking his agrarian-reform program in the Senate.

MAS has proposed to abolish the upper chamber.

The Podemos party has threatened to challenge the constitutional assembly’s legitimacy before the Bolivian Supreme Court. Mr. Garcia has said the courts have no jurisdiction over the assembly.

Gen. Marcelo Antezana, a former armed forces chief, last week raised the prospect of a coup if the existing constitution was violated. And governors and civic leaders from Bolivia’s four eastern departments have called for a regional referendum on independence.

“If the government persists in violating the law, we will declare our own autonomy and consult our people through a referendum on the wish to separate from the rest of Bolivia,” said Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas.

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