(IPS) – A meeting between Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Cristina Fernández of Argentina and Evo Morales of Bolivia was called off because of violent protests by anti-government demonstrators in the southern city of Tarija, while clashes between miners and the police left two dead and 30 injured in the western province of Oruro.
The presidents had planned to sign energy integration agreements and launch a project for the construction of a natural gas separation plant in Tarija, a province with a strong right-wing opposition movement pushing for regional autonomy.
The ceremony was also to include the delivery of housing to poor families, built with financial support from the Venezuelan government.
Tension is running high in the last week before the Aug. 10 recall referendum that will decide the fate of Morales, his vice president and eight of the country’s nine provincial governors.
Opinion polls indicate that Morales could take 54 percent of the vote, similar to the level of support he won in the December 2005 presidential elections.
On Tuesday, a crowd of opposition demonstrators in Tarija, led by local authorities, attacked a hotel where four journalists from the Venezolana de Televisión TV station were staying.
The extreme right-wing protesters claimed that members of Chávez’s armed security detail were at the hotel.
Local TV stations showed the four Venezuelan reporters complaining that they were attacked by the mob, which seized their equipment, passports and personal belongings.
The demonstrators then stormed the airport, to keep the foreign leaders from meeting with Morales, where they clashed with the security forces, who used tear gas to break up the angry crowd of around 100 protesters.
"A group of around 130 (wealthy) families are resisting the loss of privileges," said Morales from the border town of Villamontes, 150 km east of Tarija, where he was taking part in a campaign rally.
At noon on Tuesday, the Tarija Civic Committee, made up of business and landowning interests, called a province-wide business shut-down in response to the police’s use of tear gas, which caused slight injuries among several demonstrators.
On Monday night, the protesters occupied public tax and immigration offices and the installations of the recently nationalised telecoms company, ENTEL.
Leaders of the civic committees in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija declared a hunger strike Monday demanding the restitution to the provinces of a portion of the natural gas tax that the Morales administration has diverted to the payment of a universal pension for people over 60.
Violence also broke out Tuesday in the western province of Oruro, where clashes between the police and miners on strike from the state-run company Huanuni left two workers dead as a result of bullet wounds and 30 injured, according to local media reports.
A government spokesman said Morales himself coordinated the police operation with the police chiefs and Interior Minister Alfredo Rada. He also confirmed that the police were not carrying lethal weapons.
Since Monday, the Huanuni miners have been blocking the road that links the cities of Oruro and Cochabamba as they take part in a strike called by the country’s main union, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), over pension reform.
The COB wants the government to take over the country’s private retirement funds, and is demanding that pensions only be extended to wage-earners in the formal sector of the economy.
The Movement to Socialism (MAS) government’s proposed reform, on the other hand, would extend pension rights to self-employed and informal sector workers, while respecting the private retirement funds, which hold three billion dollars in the individual accounts of workers managed by private pension administrators.
The pressure from trade unions extended to the central city of Cochabamba, where roadblocks mounted by public school teachers on strike prompted counter-protests by parents.
Crowds of parents and students who engaged in skirmishes with the teachers while attempting to remove the roadblocks were broken up by the police.
Similar scenes also occurred in rural villages where teachers have been threatened with dismissal as a result of their prolonged strike.
Morales’ support base is mainly in the country’s western highlands, which are home to the impoverished indigenous majority (the president himself is an Aymara Indian). In the wealthier eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, autonomy movements led by rightwing opposition groups have been gaining in strength, blocking the government’s planned changes, like the rewriting of the constitution and agrarian reform.
The autonomy movement has also spread to the city of Sucre, in the province of Chuquisaca, where governor Sabina Cuellar, backed by the local civic committee, has excluded the president from the official ceremony to commemorate Independence Day on Wednesday, Aug. 6.
Morales suspended his plans to visit Sucre because of the climate of tension fuelled by pro-autonomy local and provincial authorities, who are demanding that the president apologise for the November 2007 deaths of three people.
The victims, who included a police officer, were killed when rioting opposition demonstrators attacked the police deployed around a military installation where the constituent assembly rewriting the constitution was meeting.
It is likely that for the first time in Bolivia’s democratic history, Morales will cancel his annual Independence Day address to Congress, which according to the constitution must take place in Sucre, where the Bolivian republic was founded 183 years ago.