Bolivian Leader Says He'll Hold Recall Referendum

By Leandro Prada | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

Buenos Aires ( - Following days of violence prompted by a government attempt to rewrite his country's constitution, Bolivian President Evo Morales is proposing a recall referendum.

A Bolivian constitutional assembly has approved a package of "reforms" including allowing the president to seek re-election as often as he likes, the nationalization of hydrocarbon industries, and a greater inclusion of indigenous people in government.

Among other things, critics say that the changes will reduce the powers enjoyed by Bolivia's nine provinces.

After violent protests against the assembly's proceedings on Nov. 24, the body later resumed its debate at a different venue, approving the 411 changes section by section. The proposals will be put before the electorate in a national referendum at some future date.

Amid growing opposition to the plans, Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, announced late last week he would seek a new mandate of approval from the Bolivian people. He also urged the country's nine regional prefects, or governors, to do the same.

Several of the nine prefects, mainly from the oil- and gas-rich eastern region of the country, have come out in opposition to the constitutional changes.

In a national broadcast Friday, Morales said, "If the people say that I should go, I don't have a problem with that. Let the people say who goes and who stays."

According to the official Bolivian newswire ABI, the conservative opposition Podemos party is keen on a recall referendum.

Podemos leader Jorge Quiroga, a former president of Bolivia, said on Saturday he was presenting a recall bill "to inquire through the Bolivian people's vote whether President Morales continues in his post or not."

An opposing prefect, Jose Luis Paredes of La Paz, said he accepted Morales' challenge and hoped the president would not back out as he did last January, when Paredes proposed a recall referendum.

Morales' close ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, won a recall referendum in 2004 that was activated by opponents who gathered millions of votes.

Chavez recently tried to push through a series of constitutional changes that would have included an end to presidential term limits, but Venezuelan voters defeated the move by a narrow margin in a referendum on Dec. 2.

After the Venezuelan election, Quiroga warned in an interview with the La Paz daily Los Tiempos that Chavez would continue causing problems, given that his term has five years to run.

The left-wing Venezuelan leader has sought to win influence in Latin America, spreading petrodollars and winning supporters in the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Some Bolivians are wary of Venezuelan interference in their country at this politically sensitive time. Last October, Chavez on his weekly television program hinted at intervention in Bolivia, saying, "Venezuelans will not remain with our arms crossed if President Evo Morales is toppled or assassinated."

On Friday, some 200 "youths" at an airport in the northern city of Riberalta attacked an arriving Venezuelan military airplane, throwing stones and other objects.

"We are not going to allow any Venezuelan plane to land in Riberalta," ABI quoted local civic leader said Marcos Jauregui as saying. "It is violating our independence and no-one is doing anything to stop it."

The Hercules C-130 plane carried 35 people including pilots and technicians. Its main purpose, according to ABI, was to replace pilots who work on two Bolivian presidential helicopters donated by the Venezuelan armed forces, plus spare parts and maintenance crews.

Also onboard was a banker from Venezuela's development bank, who was reportedly seized by the protesting gang and beaten before being released after negotiations with police.

The protestors said they attacked the plane because they believed it carried weapons.

After the incident, it took off - with a cracked windshield - and tried to land in another city in Bolivia, but as the airstrip there was occupied by protestors, it was forced to fly to an airport in Brazil to refuel.

Brazilian federal police searched the airplane and said they found no weapons onboard.

Reynaldo Bayard, leader of an opposition group called the Civic Committee in Tarija state, was quoted by the La Paz paper El Diario as saying the government was "once more its yielding to the will of Hugo Chavez" who was sending troops to Bolivia to help Morales in his mission to militarize the country's oilfields.

Earlier this year, leaders of the four opposing provinces called for protests against the government over the close relationship between Morales and Chavez.

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