BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 December 2007, 12:20 GMT
Will Bolivia's splits widen in 2008?
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC South America correspondent

Bolivia has approved a radical new draft constitution that will give greater power to the country's poor and indigenous people.

A member of the assembly raises her hand to back the proposals
Smiles from pro-Morales members but the debate is far from over

It is a major step towards fulfilling the promises made by socialist President Evo Morales as he was swept to power as Bolivia's first indigenous leader nearly two years ago.

There were fireworks and dancing in the streets of the city of Oruro after a special assembly met through the night to debate and vote on the changes.

These include allowing two consecutive five-year terms for presidents, greater state control of the economy and more autonomy for indigenous communities and the provinces.

So reason for Bolivia to rejoice?

Far from it. The constituent assembly that approved the constitution was boycotted by the opposition.

The meeting was moved to Oruro after a similar gathering last month in the city of Sucre led to clashes, buildings being ransacked and several deaths.

Polarised

The draft constitution is still a long way from being enacted.

Firstly, a national referendum is needed on one article. Then the assembly will vote on the entire text. Then another referendum will be called on the full constitution.

Members of the Constituent Assembly study the proposed changes before voting
The proposed new charter must be put to the national vote

No date has yet been set for that vote and few expect it to happen before next September.

The opposition has vowed to fight it every step of the way, saying it is being enacted illegally.

Boris Medina from the right-wing Podemos party said: "Every legal rule has been violated. This constitution is illegal and we'll denounce it in every forum we can."

Meanwhile, Bolivia is becoming increasingly polarised.

President Morales vowed to empower those Bolivians he said have been exploited for too long by a small ruling elite and their foreign backers.

He was talking mostly about indigenous Bolivians who make up more than 60% of the population. But he is also including women, poor peasant farmers and miners.

Last May, he nationalised the oil and gas industries saying that a greater share of the wealth they generate should go to ordinary Bolivians, rather than foreign investors.

Country divided

The trouble is that most of those natural resources are concentrated in the east of the country, around the city of Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is now the largest city in Bolivia and growing. It is hot and humid and the majority white population are proud to show off their wealth, driving through the city in 4x4s to shiny new shopping malls.

Map

It is very different to the capital, La Paz, high in the Andes mountains with a predominantly indigenous population, where battered buses and taxis rattle through the narrow streets and many shops look like they have not changed since the 1950s.

Bolivia is a country divided. Between rich and poor, indigenous and white, the mountainous west and the flat, humid east. Increasingly, Bolivians are being forced to decide which side they are on - for Evo and his radical changes, or against.

Last month, six of the country's nine departments held a one-day general strike against the government's policies.

They were the eastern states, centred around Santa Cruz, where the leaders say they want greater autonomy from La Paz. Some, a radical minority, want full independence.

They complain that they generate Bolivia's wealth and do not see why they should subsidise the poor in the mountains.

Many wealthy landowners also oppose government measures to redistribute land to peasant farmers and limit the size of properties.

Room for discussion

The day of the strike, peasant farmers marched from far and wide, some for hours, to the main plaza in La Paz to hear President Morales defend his changes.

After leading a chant in the Aymara language, one indigenous leader told me that Evo Morales had, for the first time, given them a voice and they were not going to quieten down now.

There are extremes on both sides.

In Santa Cruz, groups of right-wing youngsters are reported to be arming themselves.

They say President Morales is backed and is being armed by the Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, and the Cuban government.

Opponents of Evo Morales hold up a banner reading "Evo assassin of democracy" during a protest in Santa Cruz on 26 November
Will the mood calm down or is Bolivia set for further conflict?

Just above La Paz, in the sprawling community of El Alto, 4,000m (13,100 ft) above sea-level and a Morales stronghold, they say they will fight to the death to defend the changes being implemented by the first indigenous-friendly government in Bolivian history.

There is still room for discussion and compromise.

"This the kind of upheaval inevitable whenever radical change is implemented," said a government spokesman.

But the middle ground is becoming increasingly thin. The clashes are becoming ever more frequent and intense.

President Morales, in an attempt to placate his opponents, has called for a referendum which will decide whether he and the regional governors should be able to continue in their posts.

No certainty

Bolivia is still the poorest country in South America, and President Morales finds himself increasingly pressed into battle with a determined opposition, and unable to concentrate on dealing with the problems he was elected to solve.

Five of the governors of the nine Bolivian provinces : Leopoldo Fernandez (Pando), Mario Cossio (Tarija), Manfred Reyes Villa (Cochabamba), Ruben Costas (Santa Cruz) and Ernesto Suarez Sat
Several provincial governors want to declare autonomy

That, in turn, leads to greater frustration on the part of an impatient population which had high expectations of the former coca leaf grower, a man they saw as one of them.

Bolivia is a country used to political upheaval where many presidents have found their hold on power to be tenuous.

Evo Morales came to office on a huge wave of support and for a year or so enjoyed a period of, by Bolivian standards, relative calm.

There were only two things that the politicians and analysts I spoke to in Bolivia agreed upon.

Firstly, that no-one could with any certainty predict what would happen there.

But secondly, that 2008 would, almost certainly, be a difficult, possibly tumultuous year for Bolivia and for President Evo Morales.

SEE ALSO
Bolivians approve draft charter
09 Dec 07 |  Americas
Bolivia head set for vote gamble
06 Dec 07 |  Americas
Fuelling Bolivia's crisis?
08 Nov 07 |  Business
Bolivian strikers vow more action
29 Nov 07 |  Americas
Morales defends Bolivia changes
22 Aug 07 |  Americas
Country profile: Bolivia
09 Nov 07 |  Country profiles



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific