Bolivia: Opposition Accepts Morales’s Call for Talks

(IPS) – Opposition governors in Bolivia accepted President Evo Morales’s call for talks aimed at pulling the country out of the current crisis, in which at least 15 supporters of the leftwing government have been killed.

Speaking on behalf of himself and the governors of the lowlands provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni and Chuquisaca, the governor of Tarija, Mario Cossío, announced late Tuesday in the central city of Santa Cruz that he and Morales had agreed to a framework for negotiations.

The deal involves a pledge by the governors to order their supporters to pull out of government buildings and gas installations occupied and ransacked last week by groups of radical rightwing demonstrators in the eastern lowlands provinces, which concentrate most of the country’s natural gas reserves, fertile farmland and gross domestic product.

Some 35 roadblocks mounted around the country by anti-Morales pro-autonomy protesters will also be lifted, Cossío said.

For its part, the government agreed to the opposition governors’ demand for the restitution to the provinces of a portion of the natural gas tax that the Morales administration had diverted to the payment of a universal pension of 26 dollars a month for people over 60.

The government had argued that the funds diverted from the provinces for the universal pension are insignificant compared to the more than two billion dollars that will be transferred to the provincial governments this year, more than double the 952 million dollars transferred in 2005.

Among the issues that are to be on the negotiating table Thursday in the city of Cochabamba are the autonomy demanded by the so-called "eastern crescent" provinces and the new constitution rewritten by a constituent assembly in which the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) holds a majority of seats.

Cossío also asked the government to suspend the January referendum in which Bolivians are to vote on the new constitution, while the talks between the central government and the opposition leaders continue.

Another question to be discussed is the possibility of ceding some government offices and bodies to the provinces.

The talks will be brokered by the Catholic Church and international entities like a commission approved Monday by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to facilitate dialogue in Bolivia.

With respect to the violent incidents that occurred Thursday, Sept. 11 in the northern province of Pando, Cossío reported the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the killing of at least 15 indigenous Morales supporters.

He also urged the Morales administration to guarantee the safety of Pando governor Leopoldo Fernández, who was arrested Tuesday by the military and flown to La Paz to face charges of instigating the Sept. 11 violence, and of other leaders of the rightwing opposition movement also arrested in connection with the case.

After receiving resounding support from the rest of the leaders of South America meeting in Monday’s emergency UNASUR summit in Chile, Morales took decisive steps towards reaching the agreement on talks with the opposition and ordering Fernández’s arrest in response to the loud calls for justice.

But the political advances made over the last 72 hours by Bolivia’s first indigenous president, and the support from his fellow South American presidents, stand in contrast to the U.S. government’s announcement Tuesday that Bolivia has "failed to cooperate adequately" in the fight against drugs.

Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera called Washington’s decision a politically motivated move, and Morales complained that it was "blackmail."

He also noted that the United States is one of the world’s biggest markets for cocaine, and that coca production increased much more sharply in its ally, Colombia, than in Bolivia.

Being added to the U.S. drug blacklist, where Bolivia joined Venezuela and Burma, was seen by the Morales administration as a possibility since it expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg last week after accusing him of supporting pro-autonomy groups and conspiring against Morales.

When the U.S. government of George W. Bush responded by kicking out Bolivian Ambassador Gustavo Guzmán, diplomatic relations between the two countries were reduced to the level of charges d’affaires.

Powerful opposition leader landowner Branko Marinkovic, the head of the pro-business Santa Cruz Civic Committee, was virtually a lone voice calling for the release of governor Fernández as a condition for talks.

The governor is accused of "genocide" in the Sept. 11 massacre of an estimated 30 people — although only 15 deaths have been officially confirmed so far — and the disappearance of around 100 others, during what has been described by survivors as an "ambush" of Morales supporters in the province of Pando.

Only two of the victims worked for the Pando provincial government. The rest were members of impoverished indigenous Amazon jungle communities in that province, on the border with Brazil. The victims had been shot to death.

The attack, which prompted the Morales administration to declare a 90-day state of siege in Pando, has apparently strengthened the argument that the pro-autonomy rightwing movement has strong racist overtones.

Fernández has failed to explain the presence of armed men at the site of the violent incident, and has merely called for an impartial committee to be set up to demonstrate, as he says, that the indigenous supporters of the MAS party were also armed and that they were responding to a government plan to foment violence.

The arrest of Fernández, one of the opposition movement’s most radical and defiant leaders, by the military represents a shift in the Morales administration’s formerly passive stance.

In his political calculations, Morales failed to foresee an outbreak of such violence as the incident in Pando. At the same time the killings were occurring near the town of Porvenir in that province on Sept. 11, Morales was apologising in La Paz for the overly passive stance taken by the security forces in response to the violent storming of government institutions by opposition groups.