News & Current Affairs

September 16, 2008

Leaders debate Bolivia turmoil


Leaders debate Bolivia turmoil

President Evo Morales speaks on arrival at Santiago airport on 15 September 2008

Mr Morales wants to give more rights to Bolivia’s indigenous community

An emergency summit of South American leaders has opened in Chile to address deepening tensions in Bolivia.

In the last week, at least 30 people have been killed in violence between government supporters and opponents.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has likened the unrest in opposition-controlled regions of his country to an attempted coup.

He said the meeting was important as democracy had to be defended not only in Bolivia but all of South America.

The unrest represents the most serious challenge to Mr Morales since he took office almost three years ago.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) on Sunday, to help resolve the crisis.

Energy fears

Arriving in Santiago, Evo Morales said he had come “to explain to the presidents of South America the civic coup d’etat by governors in some Bolivian states in recent days”.

“We’ve seen looting, the ransacking of institutions, attempts to assault the police and the armed forces,” he said

The unrest centers on his decision to hold a referendum on a new constitution in December.

Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia (right) opposition leader Mario Cossio (left) hold talks in La Paz

The Bolivian vice president has held talks with an opposition representative

Mr Morales says he wants to re-distribute Bolivia’s wealth and give a greater voice to the large indigenous community.

But opposition leaders oppose the plan and demand greater autonomy as well as more control over natural gas revenues in their areas.

Trouble has flared in several eastern provinces and cities, with opposition supporters occupying government buildings. On Friday, Mr Morales declared martial law in the Pando region, which has seen deadly clashes between rival factions.

Most of the leaders of Unasur’s 12 member-nations are attending the summit in a bid to solve the crisis.

The correspondent in the region says that no one in South America wants the situation in Bolivia to escalate.

Neighboring Brazil and Argentina are particularly worried about their supplies of natural gas, which come from the east of the country where the dispute is at its most severe.

But, our correspondent adds, it is not clear what the meeting in Chile can achieve. Representatives of Bolivia’s opposition are not attending the summit.

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There have been some talks between the two sides, however.

On Sunday night Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia met opposition representative Mario Cossio, the governor of Tarija province. They agreed to hold more talks when Mr Morales returns from Chile.

The unrest in Bolivia has triggered a downturn in relations with the US.

Last week Bolivia accused the US of supporting the opposition and expelled its ambassador. Venezuela followed suit to show solidarity and Honduras has refused to accept the credentials of a new US envoy.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the unrest in Bolivia was “a conspiracy directed by the US empire”, likening it to the 1973 CIA-backed coup which ousted Chile’s President Salvador Allende.

The US says it regrets the recent diplomatic expulsions and has rejected Bolivia’s allegations against its ambassador.

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