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Kearns: Bruised but still fighting, Morales' agenda continues

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Despite the efforts of a small but well-funded and violent opposition, as well as his own supporters' bloody reprisals and demonstrations, Bolivian President Evo Morales continues to try to return control of the country to the majority with a series of presidential decrees and the rewriting of the constitution by the Constituent Assembly.

Morales and his allies are focused on a series of new orders issued in January that follow his redistribution agenda. Despite his December nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, the embattled indigenous president has had to send troops to various corners of the nation to quell several conflicts. Tension has been rising since the president first announced his ambitious plans for the country; however, the last few months have gotten particularly hot.

Since November, politicians from the ''half-moon'' region of Bolivia (so called because of the geographical pattern of opposition states in the east) have been leading increasingly violent protests against Morales' initiatives, but especially against the efforts by the Assembly to take control of the government. The wealthy owners of gas, oil and mineral reserves in the country are pulling out all the stops to achieve autonomy - just short of complete secession - so that they do not have to share their enormous wealth with the 70 percent or more of the country that lives in extreme poverty. In order to reach their goals, the half-moon delegation must prevent the Assembly from adopting a new regulation allowing for a majority vote to win passage of bills. If they can prevent passage of this new rule, they can prevent the majority from voting to continue with assuming almost total control of running the country. For the leaders of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and their allies, it's now or never.

The president's supporters have been just as passionate. Emblematic of the struggle was the series of events that lead to a bloody confrontation between Morales supporters and opposition forces in the city of Cochabamba on Jan. 11. In the days before, approximately 10,000 small farmers, coca growers and other rural Evo supporters marched into the city of Cochabamba, occupying the plaza near the regional government buildings. The demonstrators came to voice their demand that Manfred Reyes Villa, the region's prefect - similar to a governor - resign his position due to his attempts to seek autonomy for Cochabamba. On Jan. 10, more local police were called in to contain the swelling crowd, and to stop a contingent of farmers who were attempting to force their way into the main government building. Police repelled their entry and bombarded the crowd with tear gas, and chaos ensued.

Groups sympathetic to Reyes Villa joined the police in attacking the protesters. According to various reports, the scene was filled with tear gas smoke and the noise of shouts and gunfire with images of men waving machetes and cudgels appearing amid the confusion; police and demonstrators alike were bloodied. It was a battle.

When the smoke cleared (literally) on the 12, two people were dead and more than 240 were injured. Reyes Villa accused the government of instigating the protest while Morales and his supporters denied the charges and, in fact, various media reports showed the president trying to restrain some of his more agitated supporters. He was quoted as telling some of the protesters that they should vote on a resolution that would allow them to vote Reyes Villa out of office.

Since then, things have been a little more peaceful and Reyes Villa is in Washington, D.C., as of press time, attempting to make himself appear a victim of human rights violations. At the same time, the president has unveiled a series of orders that address some key issues: universal access to Bolivia's Social Security program, job growth, labor protections, economic development, nationalization of mining industry and oil-related profits, and continued agricultural reform.

Up until now, only one in nine Bolivians has had access to Social Security retirement benefits. Morales and his staff are drafting legislation to make all Bolivians eligible for these benefits, as many employers in the nation do not provide for retirement.

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In the area of job growth, the government's Development Bank started operations on Jan. 1. They are in the process of developing eight production centers for: quinoa (whose seeds and leaves are edible); camelidos, a smaller cousin of the alpaca; cotton; textiles; wood processing; leather; and tourism. The Development Bank will also be investing other traditional sources of employment, such as mining.

In keeping with his background as a labor organizer, Morales also spoke about creating and improving certain labor policies. The new categories include: defense of the day laborers in the private sphere, providing legal assistance to unions and empowering union leaders. In February, the government will ''relaunch'' its Ministry of Work, which, among other tasks, will be dedicated to administrative resolution of labor conflicts.

One of the decrees also dealt with economic development. Without explaining how, the government announced that there will be ''a substantive increase in investment'' in the oil industries. The appointment of a new CEO of the state's oil enterprise was also announced; this will be the agency that oversees inventory and revenue in the industry among other tasks. ''We will also continue with the process of nationalization with the objective of obtaining 51 percent of the profits for the state. ... The profits from the oil and gas resources will create more jobs and reduce poverty,'' stated Minister of Hydrocarbons Carlos Villegas in the government's official press release on the decrees.

Plans are also under way to nationalize the country's massive mining industry. The Bolivian government has been negotiating the new funding formula with local companies and it is planning workshops involving universities, community organizations and private businesses to develop a national mining plan.

The government's national agricultural reform plan, which has also stirred controversy, continues to gather momentum. Morales has already distributed tens of thousands of acres of unused land to low-income farmers and the latest plan targets distribution of another 2 million acres, accompanied by 5,000 deeds for the properties. Along with the distribution the government intends to invest in processing plants for quinoa and honey, as well as a more extensive silo storage system.

Most of these initiatives have been strongly supported by a large majority of Bolivians. It remains to be seen, however, whether Morales will be able to achieve most of these goals with such intense opposition; or whether he will be able to prevent secession and civil war.

Rick Kearns is a freelance writer of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.