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South American leaders call summit to stabilize Bolivia

Morales: Unrest is coup attempt

By Eva Vergara
Associated Press / September 16, 2008
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SANTIAGO, Chile - South American presidents met urgently yesterday hoping to prevent a political collapse in Bolivia, where the government planned to charge a rebellious eastern governor with genocide for allegedly ordering the machine-gunning of peasants.

Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, arrived at the hastily called summit having effectively lost control of half of his country. Anti-Morales demonstrators have blocked highways, taken over national government offices, closed border crossings, and sabotaged pipelines, briefly forcing a cutoff of nearly half of Bolivia's natural gas exports to Brazil.

The most serious challenge yet to his presidency is being spurred by governors of Bolivia's autonomy-seeking lowland provinces, home to the nation's energy deposits and best farmland.

"I've come here to explain to the presidents of South America" that these governors have attempted a coup, Morales said. He accused them of "inciting crimes against humanity by groups massacring the poorest of my country."

The governors want a larger share of the nation's gas profits, and are demanding that Morales cancel the centerpiece of his 3-year tenure: a planned referendum on a new constitution that would give Bolivia's long-suppressed indigenous majority more power, let Morales run for a consecutive second term, and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants.

Morales has the support of most Bolivians - voters ratified his presidency by an impressive 67 percent in an Aug. 10 recall referendum - a 13 percent jump over what the native Aymara and former coca-growers union leader won in December 2005 presidential elections.

But the same referendum also gave several of the rebellious governors renewed support in their provinces, where Morales's authority is tenuous at best.

Bolivia's chief prosecutor, Mario Uribe, said he would charge Governor Leopoldo Fernandez and other top officials in Pando, the jungle province on the Brazilian border where 30 people were killed in political violence last week, with genocide for provoking "a bloody massacre."

Morales says thugs used machine guns against his supporters in an ambush last Thursday, prompting him to declare martial law in Pando. But Fernandez remains defiant, saying the deaths came not in an ambush but an armed clash, that Morales is persecuting him politically and that he will stay in Pando's capital of Cobija.

Many of the anti-Morales blockades were dismantled over the weekend as a good-will gesture as both sides sought to establish ground rules for negotiations. And while Bolivia was generally quiet yesterday, more than a thousand government supporters marched on the US Embassy in the capital of La Paz, burning an American flag and effigies of opposition governors. Some 5,000 Bolivian migrants marched in Buenos Aires as well, in support of the Morales government.

Morales expelled Washington's ambassador, accusing him of encouraging the unrest. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expelled his country's US ambassador last week in solidarity with Morales, and the US responded in kind.

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