August 08, 2008
LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Evo Morales is hoping victory in a referendum on his presidency Sunday will re-ignite his stalled crusade to remedy age-old inequities in South America's poorest country. Polls strongly indicate he'll keep his job.
But Bolivia's first indigenous president will need more than votes to unite a country that has been splintering apart since he took office 2 1/2 years ago.
"In many, many ways, Bolivia is a failed state," said Bolivian political scientist Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University. "We're becoming sort of a collection of city-states."
Morales and his ministers are finding it increasingly difficult to even set foot in the unabashedly capitalistic eastern half of the country, where resistance to his leftist agenda is mighty.
Protests forced him to cancel visits to nearly half the country this week. In one instance, blockades of burning tires at airport exits forced the cancellation of an energy summit with the presidents of Argentina and Venezuela in the natural gas-rich province of Tarija.
"We may very well wake up on Monday morning with a president who has the support of 55 percent of the electorate but who can't land an airplane in four of the nine departments (provinces)," said political analyst Jim Shultz of the nonprofit Democracy Center think tank in Cochabamba.
Also subject to recall votes Sunday are the vice president and all governors but one who was recently elected. Most are expected to hold onto their posts in the vote, under which "no" votes must exceed the percentage by which each politician was elected to oust them.
What happens the day after is anyone's guess, particularly if, as expected, the anti-Morales provincial governor is recalled in volatile Cochabamba, home to the president's militant support base of coca leaf growers. Gov. Manfred Reyes has called the referendum illegitimate and is expected to challenge the outcome.
The fight hinges on land ownership and natural gas income. While vowing not to expropriate private property, Morales has made an exception for fallow land in the east that his movement says is used for "speculation" - land he wants impoverished Indians to farm. He's made little headway with this redistribution plan, which has infuriated wealthy landowners.
The bigger fight is over revenues from natural gas and precious metals, which have boomed since Morales nationalized the gas fields and renegotiated extraction contracts. Bolivia now keeps about 85 percent of these profits, and combined with rising global energy and mineral prices, exports have nearly doubled since 2005 to US$4.7 billion last year.
That revenue stream grew Bolivia's economy by 4.7 percent last year, increasing foreign reserves to US$7.5 billion amid a modest foreign debt of US$3.8 billion.
The overall economic picture is so promising that Morales has proposed a state pension plan that would extend protection broadly to include stay-at-home mothers and workers in the informal economy. But the provinces have resisted Morales' efforts to centralize control over the energy profits. Four declared themselves autonomous this year in provincial votes that so far have proven largely symbolic.
Morales promoted Sunday's referendum as a way of calling their bluff.
Several polls in late July suggested Morales will get about 54 percent of the vote, matching his winning tally in December 2005 and keeping him in office. Gallup International's survey suggests his victory margin will be even more comfortable, with 61 percent support. That poll of 3,852 people had an error margin of 2.3 percent and a greater rural sample than most.
But it's unclear what his "Movement Toward Socialism" will gain from the vote.
A draft constitution that would give indigenous groups more power and enable Morales to run for a second consecutive five-year term - written by Morales' allies after opposition parties walked out of a constitutional assembly last year - remains stuck.
The hostile eastern provinces, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly bold.
Opponents blocked Morales' campaign visits to the provinces of Pando, Santa Cruz and Beni in addition to Tarija, where they forced Morales to scrap his summit. They parked four tractors on Pando's airport runway on Thursday and blocked airport access in Santa Cruz on Wednesday. A bullet allegedly hit the car carrying Morales' interior minister Tuesday night in Beni.
Morales opponents also ran his land minister out of town in rural Santa Cruz earlier this year, shooting out the tires of his SUV during a trip to investigate allegations of wage slavery by wealthy ranchers.
And Venezuelans are even more unwelcome in the east, where many accuse President Hugo Chavez of meddling in Bolivian politics by advising Morales and providing tens of millions of dollars in aid. In December, rock-throwing protesters pummeled a Venezuelan air force plane when it landed in Beni, apparently for refueling.
Morales accused the eastern state governors of fomenting the protests and plotting to seize regional elections offices on Sunday to ensure the votes go their way.
"There will be no civilian dictatorships," Morales told an adoring crowd of thousands Thursday evening in his political stronghold of El Alto, which at 2.5 miles high overlooks the capital of La Paz.
A light snow fell, and Morales, 48, danced with an Indian girl to close out his referendum campaign.
In his Aymara culture, falling snow augurs good fortune.
Down in the lowlands, where the weather is downright sultry, prospects for peaceful dialogue seem slim.
"Bolivian politics is always this weird mix of poker, chess and bad wrestling," said Shultz. "The politicians put a set of policies in motion. But what happens on the street they have no control over."
Associated Press writer Carlos Valdez in La Paz contributed to this report.