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In Bolivia, vote unlikely to heal divide

New constitution would empower indigenous tribes

By Chris Kraul
Los Angeles Times / January 25, 2009
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LA PAZ, Bolivia - A new constitution that voters are expected to approve today would give more power to Bolivia's indigenous communities, promote agrarian policy changes, and allow President Evo Morales to seek election to another term.

But analysts warn that passage of the constitution could exacerbate Bolivia's polarization, throw its legal system into chaos, and discourage investment in the natural resources that are its main ticket to prosperity.

Morales, a onetime coca farmer who is Bolivia's first Indian president, is following his allies in the region, leftist presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, in seeking a new constitution to lengthen his time in office and increase his powers.

Morales enjoys the solid support of the indigenous community that makes up about one-third of the country’s 9.2 million people. But many in the middle class and intelligentsia who are fed up with a history of ineffective government also back him.

"This would be a very significant victory for Evo," said Eduardo Gamorra, political scientist at Florida International University. "It basically gives him carte blanche to do what he feels like."

Today's vote follows a year of tension in Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America. In 2008, four of nine states defied Morales and passed measures seeking greater autonomy. Morales easily survived a recall vote, and armed confrontations in northern Pando state left a dozen dead.

The conflict pits the largely indigenous population of the western highlands against cattlemen and soy farmers in the eastern states, which are rich in natural resources. Alarmed that civil war could break out, neighboring countries called a regional summit in Chile in September.

The new constitution would boost indigenous rights by promoting alternative tribal "community justice" to replace traditional courts, and by recognizing the rights of 36 ethnic groups to control their land and claim royalties on natural resources.

Lupe Andrade, a former mayor of the capital, La Paz, who is now a political analyst warned that competition for royalties on Bolivia's many mineral and energy projects could lead to conflict among tribes.

The vote comes amid worsening US-Bolivia relations. The top US diplomat, Krishna Urs, walked out of Morales’s state of the union speech Thursday after the leader criticized alleged US interference in Bolivian affairs. Urs has been in charge of the embassy since Morales expelled Ambassador Phillip Goldberg in September, alleging that a plot was in the works to overthrow him.

Morales has also ordered out the US Drug Enforcement Administration even as international counter-narcotics officials say coca cultivation, cocaine production and illicit exports are all on the rise. Coca is recognized in the new constitution as part of Bolivia’s "cultural patrimony."

George W. Bush’s administration retaliated last year by expelling Bolivia's ambassador and ending trade preferences Andean nations for fighting the drug trade. That has cost Bolivian textile manufacturers millions.

Political scientist Gamorra sees little prospect for short-term improvement of US-Bolivia relations under President Obama. Even some Morales supporters are ambivalent about the financial support he receives from Chavez. Morales redistributes Venezuelan cash to local mayors and makes his foreign trips using Venezuelan military aircraft. Chavez has offered to send troops to defend Morales in the event of a coup.

The new constitution would codify national rights over mineral and energy deposits, and more foreign-owned energy, mining and telecommunications companies would probably be nationalized, former President Carlos Mesa said in an interview.

The proposed constitution was toned down through negotiations with the opposition in congress, including a clause limiting Morales and future presidents to one more five-year term, not two as originally proposed.

Luis Eduardo Siles, a political science professor, said the new constitution would advance redistribution of land to the poor.

"The constitution will permit the ownership of up to 25,000 acres by a single landowner as long as the land is 'economically and socially productive,' " Siles said. "The problem at this point is in measuring that productivity."

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