August 12, 2008
LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Bolivian President Evo Morales said Monday that he's ready to sit down and talk to his bitter rivals in the country's pro-capitalist east once all results are in from a recall vote that strongly reaffirmed his mandate.
But this Andean nation's first indigenous president also cautioned that he represents "the entire Bolivian family" and won't bow to narrow selfish interests.
The more prosperous east, home to most of Bolivia's natural gas deposits, has resisted Morales' insistence that the central government control and distribute energy profits.
The chief of the Organization of American States' observer mission, meanwhile, expressed concern over Bolivia's widening divisions and interpreted Sunday's results as a call for dialogue.
"The people are asking with this outcome that their leaders find a way to reach an accord," said Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan vice president.
The U.S. government said it backs efforts by the OAS, the Roman Catholic Church and others to facilitate "a frank dialogue" in the Andean nation, which has badly splintered under Morales.
"We reiterate our support for Bolivia's unity and territorial integrity, and remain committed to be a good partner in Bolivia's journey to a more democratic, prosperous future," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
Morales said he would convoke Bolivia's governors along with other social groups once all results are in from Sunday's referendum, which endorsed his leftist agenda by an impressive 63.5 percent, with three-fifths of the vote counted.
He told reporters that the presidents of Venezuela, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador had called to congratulate him, and he reiterated his pledge to dedicate himself to eradicating extreme poverty, which afflicts about one in three Bolivians.
Such talk is personal for Morales, who grew up poor on Bolivia's arid altiplain. While promoting a program that pays elderly Bolivians nearly US$30 a month with natural-gas revenues, the president noted how his late mother used to sell one sheep a month to cover basic food costs.
Later Monday, Morales read aloud a one-sentence congratulatory note from Cuba's Fidel Castro praising his "colossal victory" during a joint television hookup in Venezuela with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
"Evo should be declared president of all the Indians of this continent," Chavez said.
Morales devised Sunday's referendum to try to topple governors who have frustrated his bid to improve the plight of Bolivia's long-suppressed indigenous majority, which is concentrated in the country's western highlands.
And while he won broad vindication, so did the governors of the four eastern states that have vigorously resisted him by declaring themselves autonomous earlier this year _ a largely symbolic act.
All four survived Sunday's vote, in which eight of the country's nine governors were also subject to recall.
Most powerful among them is Gov. Ruben Costas of Santa Cruz, the soy-growing lowland center of resistance to Morales. He said Sunday night his province will now create its own police force and call elections for a provincial legislature.
Morales did surprisingly well, however, in the four eastern states. In the state of Pando, he was endorsed by 51 percent of voters, while he won 40 percent approval or better in the others.
Winning office in December 2005, Morales received 53.7 percent of the vote _ at the time the best electoral showing for a Bolivian leader.
Morales has since nationalized the country's natural gas fields _ the state now keeps 85 percent of the profits _ and main telephone company, but the opposition has stymied his attempts to seize fallow eastern lands and give them to impoverished Indians.