The current struggle between newly empowered indigenous people and poor of Bolivia against the country’s old, ousted power brokers seemed headed toward an impasse before the two sides took a breather. Meanwhile, outside forces were weighing in.

Deliberating in the historic constitutional and judicial capital of Sucre, the Constituent Assembly, whose convocation was a key campaign plank of socialist President Evo Morales, turned 1 year old on Aug. 6, and had agreed on nothing. It closed down briefly in mid-August due to street protests and racial slurs directed at the delegates, and on Sept. 7 it suspended proceedings for a month.

Morales’ opponents had forced the Assembly to consider moving the executive and legislative seat of government, currently in La Paz, to Sucre. When Morales’ supporters, accusing the opposition of obstructing the Assembly’s real work, voted to drop the matter on Aug. 15, violent protests erupted.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linares called for a mobilization of the country’s indigenous people for Sept. 10 to break the logjam. In response, the “civic committees” of six departments (states), representing better-off and privileged Bolivians of European descent, organized work stoppages in their departments for Aug. 28.

The civic committees were set up during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, when the ruling generals were trying to cement their ties with the middle and upper classes.

The strikes had an uneven impact, with rural people generally staying aloof. For the first time, the departments of Chuquisaca and Cochebamba joined four separatist-leaning eastern departments as centers of organized right-wing protest. Demonstrators circulated flyers with racist and often obscene messages. Opposition-controlled media turned up their volume.

On Sept. 4, the pro-Morales governor of Chuquisaca resigned, unwilling to face expanding violence. The next day, an Assembly decision to ignore a court order to debate the issue of moving the capital triggered right-wing attacks, wounding 80. On Sept. 6, the civic committees announced formation of an umbrella organization, the “Democratic Junta of Bolivia.” Its first action, a hunger strike, lasted one day.

The turmoil culminated Sept. 10 with the “Social Summit in Defense of the Constituent Assembly,” a demonstration organized by Morales’ supporters in Sucre. The original call had gone out for 100,000 demonstrators, but fears of violence prevailed, especially among rural sectors of the population, and only 10,000 participated.

A manifesto from the gathering read in part: “The democratic vote of the people guaranteed the convoking of the Constituent Assembly,” whose purpose is to assure “the democratic unity of the homeland, equality between people, the collective rights of the indigenous and the nationalization of natural wealth.”

A week later, the intensity of confrontation had abated. Responding to an appeal from President Morales, the Chuquisaca governor returned to office. Armed forces chief Wifredo Vargas announced that “the Armed Forces … are always a bastion of guarantee within the framework of the political constitution of the state.”

In Santa Cruz, the landowning civic committee head Branko Marinkovic offered pay for damages caused by his group’s strong-arming youth wing. He called for dialogue with Morales. Counterparts in Pando, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca spoke up for resumption of the Constituent Assembly.

Meanwhile, Washington’s role became a factor. The Bolivian Supreme Court authorized a request for former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and two former government ministers to be extradited from the United States for their roles in the killing of 80 unarmed demonstrators in October 2003.

An article by the U.S.-Venezuelan lawyer Eva Golinger circulating on the Internet documented recent U.S. government funding of 379 organizations, political parties and projects in Bolivia. Public documents revealed payments of $13.3 million for “reinforcing regional governments,” “civic education for emergent leaders” and “the spreading of information.”

Expressions of Latin American solidarity with the embattled Morales government so far are muted, with the exception of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Speaking on his weekly television program “Alo Presidente” with Evo Morales at his side, Chavez warned, “Imperialism has a plan to knock off this Indian . … If that occurs, we will shout with Che Guevara … one, two, three, four, five, or 10 Vietnams will have to be created in Latin America.”

From Argentina, journalist Luis Bilbao chimed in: “Mr. President Nestor Kirchner, it is urgent that you make a public pronouncement against the conspiring of the U.S., which aims to overthrow the government of Evo Morales.”

Bilbao’s appeal, which appeared at BoliviaRising.blogspot, continued: “Argentina cannot remain standing apart from this conflict, which is unfolding right now in this brother country.”

atwhit @megalink.net

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