Bolivia’s vice-president has warned leaders of four rebel conservative regions that the government will use “all its powers” to keep the country intact, though he hoped that a deepening constitutional crisis could be resolved through a combination of “pacts, dialogues and elections”.
“If they try to take one millimetre of the Bolivian state, the government will not allow this to happen,” Álvaro García Linera told the Financial Times. “We will do everything to defend our territorial integrity, just like any other state.”
The approval this month of a controversial new constitution designed to “refound” Bolivia and grant new rights to indigenous communities has triggered regional upheaval, prompting the opposition-controlled departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija to announce radical autonomy statutes last Saturday.
Tensions eased after the government first opted not to send troops to the departments and then declared a Christmas suspension of what had been a fierce propaganda campaign against eastern business interests.
Differences between the pro-government, mainly indigenous west and the wealthier, mainly mixed-race east have intensified since the leftwing indigenous leader Evo Morales was elected as president two years ago. The failure to secure consensus over the new constitution has raised fears that South America’s poorest country might fragment or even face a Yugoslavia-style civil war.
Mr García Linera, a 44-year-old sociologist and former guerrilla fighter, lambasted opposition leaders.
“Some people think that somehow this place can become like Serbia or Bosnia. These are separatists and we have to isolate them,” he said. Departmental claims to impose and annul taxation and in one case take control of locally deployed detachments of the armed forces were tantamount to the “creation of a parallel state”, which “the government will not allow”.
However, the vice-president played down the risk of conflict and said Bolivia was committed to pacifist principles. In recent civil unrest, police had withdrawn rather than engage with protesters and he said the government was learning to use minimum force.
He denied reports that the radical Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chávez had sent military aid to Bolivia, arguing that the only Venezuelan military in the country were deployed on the helicopter used to transport Mr Morales.
Meanwhile, for the next few weeks at least, politics will be dominated by the referendums and congressional votes needed to approve the new constitution, and a separate and especially controversial constitutional law limiting the size of land-holdings. Rebel departments are also planning to hold their own referendums on the autonomy statutes.
Mr García Linera said the government was hoping to gain more time by organising yet another vote, this time offering electors the opportunity to throw Mr Morales and the nine departmental governors out of office. All are two years into five-year terms.