Friday, January 12, 2007

Morales allies vow to step up protests in Bolivia

Thousands of coca farmers allied with Bolivian President Evo Morales vowed on Friday to keep up their protest against a conservative provincial governor, a day after two people were killed and dozens wounded in street battles.
More than 20,000 people, many brandishing sticks, massed in a plaza in downtown Cochabamba, to demand the resignation of Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa, a political opponent of Morales who has led a regional autonomy drive.
"We are not going to leave this city until Manfred Reyes Villa steps down," protest leader Omar Fernandez told the throng.
"If Bolivia's elites want more people to die, then more people will die. But we want a united Bolivia, not one divided like this country's oligarchy wants," he said.
The protest leader said thousands of peasants were en route to this lowland city, where anti-Reyes Villa protests first flared on Monday.
Wielding guns, sticks, and machetes, demonstrators seeking the governor's ouster battled with his supporters in pitched street battles on Thursday.
Over 100 people were wounded during the violence that broke out when Reyes Villa's sympathizers confronted the protesters.
In a speech on Friday, after returning from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's inauguration, Morales blamed the violence on local governors who he says support "separatism in Bolivia."
Morales said he ordered the police and armed forces to pacify Cochabamba, a regional seat of government 275 miles east of La Paz.
He called for a thorough investigation and urged grass-roots movements aligned with his government not to take revenge against political rivals for the death of a coca grower during the clashes.
"It's not about humiliating anyone, or about winning against anyone, it's about finding solutions through dialogue," said Morales, a leftist and the first Bolivian president of indigenous background.
The Cochabamba clashes are the latest chapter in Bolivia's long history of political unrest and stem from political disputes involving the country's first generation of elected regional governors. Bolivia's president appointed governors until December 2005.
Reyes Villa along with five of the country's nine regional governors -- all from opposition parties -- are at odds with the central government over their demands for more regional autonomy and a larger share of state revenues.
"Cochabamba's governor's support for independence, division triggered a reaction in patriotic people from the countryside, from the city, and that led to this clash," Morales said.
Reyes Villa said he would not resign and blamed the violence on Morales. "He rules over the police and the armed forces, and is the leading authority of the region's coca leaf growers," he told Radio Erbol on Thursday night.
Morales is very popular in Cochabamba, where he rose to prominence leading protests by growers of coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine but also prized by Bolivian Indians for its traditional uses in medicines and herbal teas. He still heads the region's coca growers confederation.
Morales swept to power in a 2005 election vowing to nationalize energy and set up an elected assembly charged with writing a constitution reflecting the interests of the Indian majority.
Over 20 people have been killed in protests since he took office in December 2005.
(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga)

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