He broke the colonial bar on indigenous rule, and for two years Bolivian President Evo Morales has battled multinationals and large landowners. Contrasts are stark between politicians representing European-descended land and business owners and Morales allies drawn from indigenous, peasant and labor-oriented social movements. Now Morales’ government has reached an impasse.

At issue: approval of a new constitution, agitation for regional autonomy, and ultimately, control over natural resources.

The present crisis developed after Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly approved a new constitution last December. Right-wing members boycotted the deliberations and final vote, and since then opposition forces centered in the country’s wealthy eastern sections have rejected the constitution. On Feb. 1, separatist leaders in Santa Cruz announced plans for a May 4 vote on statutes leading to autonomy. The states of Pando, Beni and Tarija are expected to follow suit.

Bolivia’s Congress failed to act on its mandate to secure popular approval of the constitution through a referendum. Nor did it authorize a simultaneous referendum to allow the people to resolve land reform issues left open by the Constituent Assembly. The Congress’ upper house is under right-wing control.

Then on Feb. 28 legislators agreed to submit the two referenda to a national vote on May 4. They were responding to two days of demonstrations outside their doors by hundreds of indigenous and labor activists. The Congress rejected the notion that a prefect (governor) of a department (or state) could independently arrange for a vote on local autonomy.

The government, solicitous of its constitutional role during agitation for autonomy, apparently intended to prevent the formation of federal republics. Its preference, to allow for autonomous regions, is drawn from Spanish experience in accommodating separatist currents.

The next shoe dropped on March 7 when the National Electoral Court nullified the congressional decisions on grounds that too little time remained between authorization and actual voting. The Court joined in forbidding local officials to set up autonomy votes on their own.

Starting over, the Morales administration advertised its openness to dialogue. On March 12, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linares said a “mixed constitutional commission” would hear testimony over two weeks in preparation for new laws from Congress aimed at convoking referendum votes and authorizing states to set up local voting on statutes for autonomy. Cardinal Julio Terrazas agreed to mediate between the government and the opposition. The government has sought intervention from the Organization of American States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Analysts see Morales’ winning coalition of 2005 as waning. Left-wing critics speak out within the social movements. Divisions widen between rural and urban, poor and middle class. The right wing dominates the media. So far, armed forces and police officers remain loyal to ideals of national unity.

Elected recently as prefect of Chuquisaca, Sabina Cuellar became the sixth of nine prefects opposing the Morales government. All six reportedly are preparing for referenda on autonomy. Morales’ strength lies in the western departments of La Paz, Oruro and Potosí — areas of indigenous concentration — and in rural areas of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca.

The U.S. government has intervened. “What I want the whole world to know is that this conspiracy against me personally is directed by the U.S. ambassador,” Morales complained recently. Citing Philip Goldberg’s previous ambassadorial experience in Belgrade, where he allegedly helped dismember the former Yugoslavia, the president asserted: “We are not going to let the United States keep on hatching conspiracies with oligarchic and mafiosa groups to divide Bolivia.”

Morales accused the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of influencing the selection of delegates to Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly and their work there. Earlier this year a U.S. diplomat was expelled for trying to enlist Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar for spy purposes.

Lawyer Eva Golinger indicated on the Bolivia Rising blog that Bolivia has received “more USAID funding than any other nation in Latin America — more than $120 million annually.”