Morales allies vow to step up protests in Bolivia
COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, Jan 13 (Reuters) At least 20,000 coca farmers allied with Bolivian President Evo Morales vowed on Friday to keep up protests against a provincial governor, a day after two people were killed in street battles.
Manfred Reyes Villa, the conservative governor of Cochabamba, is pushing for more autonomy for his province, as have other regional leaders opposed to the leftist president.
Morales called for calm while proposing a law that would allow him to call for a public vote to remove Reyes Villa.
''Be it a mayor, be it a governor, be it the president of the republic, if he violates human rights or is corrupt or he does not honor campaign promises ... it should be possible to revoke any authority's mandate by a referendum,'' Morales said yesterday.
Morales is very popular in Cochabamba, where he rose to prominence leading protests by growers of coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine. The leaves are also revered by Bolivian Indians for medicinal and nutritional properties.
Wielding guns, sticks and machetes, demonstrators opposed to Reyes Villa's autonomy drive fought with the governor's supporters on Thursday. More than 100 people were wounded.
Morales, blaming Reyes Villa for the bloodshed because he supports ''separatism in Bolivia,'' sent police and soldiers to pacify Cochabamba, a central city (440 km) east of the capital, La Paz.
Reyes Villa, among six governors from opposition parties seeking more autonomy and a larger share of government revenues, said he would not resign.
The clashes are the latest chapter in a history of political unrest in South America's poorest country and stem from disputes involving the first generation of elected regional governors. Until December 2005, the president appointed the nine governors.
Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, called for an investigation of the violence and urged grass-roots movements aligned with his government not to take revenge for the death of a coca farmer during the street violence.
Morales, who still heads Cochabamba's coca growers confederation, said his supporters had lifted roadblocks on the highways linking the region with the rest of the country.
But thousands of Morales supporters, many brandishing sticks, massed in a plaza in central Cochabamba on Friday and pledged more protests until the governor steps down.
''If Bolivia's elites want more people to die, then more people will die,'' Omar Fernandez, a coca growers' leader, told the crowd.
''But we want a united Bolivia, not one divided like this country's oligarchy wants.'' Fernandez said thousands of peasants were on their way to the lowland city to join the demonstrations.
Morales swept to power in a 2005 election vowing to nationalize energy and set up an assembly charged with writing a constitution reflecting the interests of the Indian majority.
More than 20 people have been killed in protests since he took office in January 2006.
REUTERS SY VC1000