Page last updated at 18:16 GMT, Sunday, 14 September 2008 19:16 UK

In Bolivia's opposition heartland

By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Santa Cruz

They have cleaned up the debris from the ransacked government offices in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.

Gabriela Montano
The city's government envoy had to be interviewed at a secret location

Religious groups marched through the city centre calling for peace and opposition leaders have been talking to the government about finding a solution to a crisis that last week erupted in violence.

But it is a tense, nervous peace. Opposition groups control the access road to Santa Cruz's airport. Passengers must make their way to the airport perimeter, negotiate a roadblock and take their taxis from there.

There are constant meetings and rumours are rife.

"Government tanks are moving towards Santa Cruz," said one man in conspiratorial tones.

"There's been shooting on the other side of the city," a woman told me.

Graffiti calling for the death of President Evo Morales is on the walls.

Secret location

I interviewed the government representative in Santa Cruz, Gabriela Montano, at a secret location as a safety precaution since she has been threatened by opposition groups.

I was picked up at my hotel by some of her aides and driven to a private house. After a number of furtive mobile phone conversations, I was allowed in.

"The opposition," she said "has been working on a campaign for months to de-legitimise the government in Santa Cruz."

She added that it was therefore no surprise to find unauthorised people on the streets requesting documentation and beating people up.

It was the government's aim, she said, to re-establish its authority in the region.

Ms Montano laid the blame firmly on the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, an unelected group of businessmen which often speaks on behalf of the region and is behind the move for greater autonomy from central government.

City of contrasts

Santa Cruz is one of the fastest-growing cities in Latin America.

Maria Savaia
They don't want to give up any of their land but the fight for our rights will continue
Maria Savaia
Indigenous rights activist

Its oil and natural gas wealth finances the shiny office blocks and plush shops that line the streets.

The population, many of European descent, drive around in 4x4s and wear modern, designer clothes.

But in one corner of Santa Cruz there is a stark reminder of the other Bolivia, the poor indigenous Bolivia where people still wear traditional clothes and eke out a living on barren land.

Plan 3000 is where many of those who came from the west of the country to find work have settled.

Its streets are unpaved, women in colourful shawls carrying babies serve beans and corn in dark covered markets and posters and graffiti in support of President Morales decorate the walls.

Maria Savaia, who works in the indigenous rights office that was ransacked by opposition supporters, said she believes that the same oligarchy that has always governed Santa Cruz was behind the attack.

"The issue is land," she said. "They don't want to give up any of their land but the fight for our rights will continue."

'Anti-European discrimination'

Carlos Dabdoub is one of the leaders of the opposition.

Marite Schmitter
They look at my blonde hair and ask me for my papers to prove where I'm from
Marite Schmitter
Santa Cruz resident

He said the relationship between the central and regional government was fractured.

He laid the blame firmly at the feet of President Morales.

"He refuses to respect the democratic vote in this region for greater autonomy," he said.

Santa Cruz resident Marite Schmitter said she and her friends felt discriminated against because of their European background.

"They look at my blonde hair and ask me for my papers to prove where I'm from," she added.

"I'm Bolivian, from Santa Cruz."

She said jobs were being unfairly given to indigenous workers.

Most in Bolivia would say that it was only a matter of time before the violence erupted as it did last week, leaving several dead.

Polarised country

The split between President Evo Morales and his supporters among the indigenous community in the mountainous west of the country and the hot and humid oil and gas rich east has been growing wider almost by the day since the president took office in January 2006.

President Morales has been talking to opposition leaders and says they have reached some agreement.

But he also said he would push ahead with his plans to radically change the Bolivian constitution, giving a greater voice to the large indigenous community and implementing a land reform programme.

The tension will inevitably increase ahead of a national referendum on that constitution scheduled for 7 December.

The governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, said that if just one opposition supporter died as the government tried to re-establish control in the east of Bolivia then the talks would end.

South American leaders are meeting in Chile on Monday to help find a diplomatic solution to the Bolivian crisis.

But there is so little common ground between the two sides that they do not have very much to work with.

Bolivia crisis death toll rises
14 Sep 08 |  Americas
Expulsions stoke US-LatAm dispute
12 Sep 08 |  Americas
Anti-Morales protests hit Bolivia
10 Sep 08 |  Americas
Bolivia sets date for referendum
29 Aug 08 |  Americas
Country profile: Bolivia
22 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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