Bolivian states inch closer to self-rule as Morales urges talks

LA PAZ (AFP) — Four of Bolivia's richest departments Monday said they will put their autonomy hopes to referendum votes, as President Evo Morales called for talks with the country's nine governors in a bid to defuse rising tensions.

The energy-rich eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando announced signature drives to get the legal quorum of 8.0 percent of their local populations behind referendums to approve their quest for greater autonomy, officially declared by state officials on Saturday.

The governors of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca have also announced similar aspirations, as Bolivia's three remaining western departments -- La Paz, Oruro and Potosi -- stand firmly behind Morales in the biggest challenge yet to his socialist reform movement.
Morales, the country's first indigenous president, has alienated the country's rich lowland regions, who populations are largely ethnically European and mixed, by pushing his plan to redistribute the country's wealth to the poor natives in the mountains.

Tension came to a head earlier this month when an assembly run by Morales supporters approved a draft constitution giving him greater powers and enshrining his pro-poor agenda.

Both the draft constitution and the autonomy statutes declared by the four departments will have to be put to referendums before they can be validated.

Morales on Sunday called for a dialogue with the recalcitrant governors in hopes of defusing the unrest, a day after massive pro- and anti-government demonstrations took place around the country sparked by the regional autonomy moves.

Morales has accused the autonomy supporters of wanting to split the country and has warned that "the armed forces ... are here to make sure that the country never disintegrates."

On Monday, Morales called the nine governors to La Paz on Wednesday for talks in the presence of European Union ambassadors and possibly Organization of American States representatives.

The talks were arranged by EU diplomats, whose mediation Morales invoked last week in hopes of bringing the two sides together.

The secretary general of the La Paz state government, Alejandro Zapata, said Netherlands Ambassador, Martin de la Bey, would act as mediator between Morales and the pro-autonomy governors.

So far, only La Paz and Cochabamba have agreed to the talks, officials said.

Meanwhile on Monday Morales ended meetings with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva after they signed a 750-million-dollar agreement for the joint exploitation of Bolivia's gas and crude oil resources by state-run oil companies Petrobras (Brazil) and YPFB (Bolivia).

Most of the natural resources are located in Bolivia's richer lowland departments.

Morales on Sunday also signed with Lula and visiting Chilean President Michelle Bachelet an agreement to build South America's first east-west highway, linking Brazil's Atlantic coast to Chile's Pacific coast via Bolivia.

The massive 4,700-kilometer (2,900-mile) project is expected to be finished in 2009 and, according to Lula, will benefit the three nations by speeding up trade between them and with the rest of the world.

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