Lock-out triggers harsh power struggle in Bolivia

The South American country is politically, economically and geographically split in two, as the ongoing Constituent Assembly fails to reach basic consensus.

Three days after the leftist government of Evo Morales began formal talks with foreign companies to nationalize the oil and gas industries, the four wealthier departments in the eastern lowlands Friday led a one-day general lock-out in protest at plans to rewrite the country's constitution. According to the organizers of the protests in Beni, Pando, and the gas-rich provinces of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Tarija, the strike was called against plans of Morales’ Socialist Party to allow the ongoing Constituent Assembly to amend the country’s charter by simple majority vote.

The 24-hour strike was called by the powerful Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, which gathers businessmen from the prosperous south-eastern city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where buses, schools and shops were reported to have closed. On the contrary, the remaining five departments of the country -in the poorer highlands- run their businesses as usual.

On Friday morning opposition leaders said the strike had "massive support". "The support for the strike is robust, massive," said German Angelo, president of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz.

The four rebel departments are controlled by members of the right-wing opposition to ruling Morales and have little less than half of the seats at the Constituent Assembly, which meets in the historical city of Sucre. There, delegates of the ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS), are trying to impose a new voting system that requires only a simple majority to amend the constitution. They also say that the Constituent Assembly is fundamental, which means that there is no other power above it.

The opposition says the move hides the intention of Evo Morales to overturn Bolivia’s democracy and turn the country into a “totalitarian dictatorship”. Together, the four states form a crescent-shaped area that curves around Bolivia's south-eastern lowlands - known as the "Media Luna" or Half Moon. They are home to about a third of Bolivia's population, including most of its white European-descended minority.

According to reports from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, clashes between protester leaders and trade unions loyal to President Morales took place during the first hours of the strike. In the morning, small explosions destroyed part of the offices of the National TV in Santa Cruz.

Recently, the four rebel provinces voted for autonomy in a referendum called by the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz. As for now, the eastern region has not advanced further, but its leaders warned on an eventual radicalization of plans if the Constituent Assembly does not fulfill its demands.

Hernan Etchaleco

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov