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Morales' wealthy opponents win elections in Bolivia

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LA PAZ, Bolivia - The battle over the political future of Bolivia has reached a new level of tension, with another showdown coming Aug. 10.

The official regional autonomy votes have gone against President Evo Morales. The official tally is now seven regions opposed to and two supporting MAS supervision, although the fight for political control and autonomy is far from over.

Morales and his allies are charging the wealthy leaders of the ''half-moon region'' with sedition and conducting unconstitutional elections that included violent repression of MAS supporters. The conflict between the two sides has been escalating since the Aymara leader began nationalizing oil companies and using some of the profits for education and health care, as well as giving land to impoverished indigenous and rural peoples. His fiercest opponents come from the wealthy states of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, which comprise the half-moon region where most of the country's oil and mineral resources are located.

The Morales government is asking the Bolivian Congress to sanction two opposition states for rejecting the congressionally passed Aug. 10 referendum - which would decide if the president and all of the governors would stay or leave office - as well as ignoring the constitution and, according to Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramon Quintana, ''for having orchestrated a sinister coup plot against the democracy and the unity of the nation.''

(In a surprise move, the governors of Santa Cruz, Beni and Tarija announced July 4 that they had changed their decisions and would submit to the national Aug. 10 referendum.)

Quintana announced that charge at a press conference at the Quemado Palace June 23. He also said that the same regional leaders, who run the National Democratic Council, were ''disrespectful'' of the law in their regional elections which were ''characterized by historic levels of abstention.''

Since the first controversial referendum vote passed in Santa Cruz in May, the pro-Morales forces have been asserting that the total of the counted ''no'' votes along with the abstention numbers were greater than all of the ''yes'' votes in the half-moon region.

In the Pando region, for instance, 81.7 percent of those who voted opted for ''yes'' for the anti-Morales, pro-autonomy candidate, with 18.2 percent voting ''no.'' The total ''yes'' votes came to 12,671 and the ''no'' ballots totaled 2,823. However, as the Morales administration pointed out, 46.5 percent of all voters, or 13,480 people, abstained from voting. The total number of abstentions and ''no'' votes then comes to 16,303, almost 4,000 more than the winning ''yes'' tally.

Pro-Morales forces also assert that some people were instructed to protest the Pando and other elections by not participating. One of the few accounts of this type of protest came from the Beni town of Yucumo. According to the local Radio Fides, approximately 20,000 Yucumo created a blockade around the voting area in the center of the city, where they burned the ballot boxes in protest against the pro-autonomy movement.

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The administration is also alleging that violence against Morales supporters prevented many people from going to the polls in all of the half-moon regions. Assaults in the towns of Yucumo, Palmar, Nuevos Horizontes, Rurrenabaque, Riberalta and Trinidad have been reported in various Bolivian media.

Bolivian Television, for example, put Humberto Parari on the air after an attack he described.

''Without any cause they began to hit me, simply for being identified with the process of change and being against the illegality,'' Parari alleged, referring to a group of young men connected to the governor of Beni.

In Rurrenbaque, the communications director for a farmer's federation, Jesus Limarino, told Bolivian radio station Erbol that he had been kidnapped and tortured for his pro-Morales stance by a group of ''hooded'' men who grabbed him, threw him into a car with tinted windows and took him to a location he did not recognize. Limarino said he was beaten and tortured; he is now, according to government sources, in a private health facility in Rurrenabaque.

Many of the attacks were attributed to members of the famous Santa Cruz Youth Union, already well-known for their violence against pro-Morales supporters. The SCYU tried to ''sack and destroy'' the offices of the Moxenos Ethnic Peoples Central of Beni, an organization representing many indigenous people, among others.

According to Ernesto Sanchez, a representative of the Moxenos group, many of their neighbors from Villa Corina helped repel the attackers who were carrying clubs and ''autonomy'' placards.

''This reaction from the unionists [Santa Cruz] is because our people weren't going to vote or they were going to reject the autonomy ticket with a 'no' vote; their Gov. Ernesto Suarez didn't like that and that's why they attacked us,'' he claimed.

While the Morales administration gathers more evidence for its case - which includes charges that the U.S. State Department is helping to fund and train the opposition - it has also announced it will form a new governmental agency in charge of regional autonomies. The new Ministry of Autonomies will ''guarantee legal regional autonomies that will also guarantee the unity and integrity of the national territory'' according to a government press statement.

In the meantime, Morales has repeated that the national referendum vote will take place Aug. 10. One of his opponents, Pando Gov. Leopoldo Fernandez, warned that the president should change his attitude towards the autonomy movement or be prepared to ''deal with the consequences.''