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More violence in Bolivia after referendum

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LA PAZ, Bolivia - In the three weeks after the contentious national referendum vote, anti-government forces from Bolivia;s half-moon region staged a series of protest actions including: attacks against Cuban doctors treating poor communities; strikes; and massive road blockades.

Pro-government forces also clashed with the opposition groups in Santa Cruz and one contingent closed roads surrounding Sucre, the capital city of Chuquisaca.

In the midst of the war of words and physical attacks, Bolivian President Evo Morales also issued a decree to hold another national referendum vote for acceptance or rejection of the new Constitution already voted on by the National Constituent Assembly.

This new referendum, which also included provisions for elections of regional positions, was scheduled for Dec. 7 of this year, one year after the controversial drafting of the proposed Constitution. Bolivia's National Electoral Court however, ruled the decree unconstitutional and advised the President that the Congress would need to pass a law allowing the referendums.

The post-referendum turbulence transpired after efforts at dialogue failed, despite international support for the talks. In various press statements, The Organization for American States (OAS), the United Nations, and several diplomatic delegations from various countries urged settlement to no avail. On the day of the referendum vote however, violent actions already started to flare in the opposition city of San Ignacio in the Santa Cruz region.

According to human rights observers from Santa Cruz, on Aug. 10 members of the San Ignacio Civic Committee and the Santa Cruz Youth Union broke into the residence of a group of Cuban doctors who were in the area providing free medical care to low-income patients. The doctors were met at their residence by the two committees, beaten, forced onto a truck, driven approx 10 km from San Ignacio, and then left there after the committee members threatened to kill the doctors if they didn't leave the area.

Afterwards, doctors were relocated to an undisclosed location for their safety. The Santa Cruz Human Rights Coordinator (SCHRC) has petitioned the region's district attorney to investigate the charges. (As of press time, no charges have been filed.) SCHRC also claimed that the Santa Cruz Youth Union, armed with clubs, baseball bats and other weapons, were patrolling the streets of the city in the days that followed, supposedly looking for pro-MAS citizens and indigenous people in general.

Three days after the attack in San Ignacio, on Wednesday, Aug. 13, three Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Center for Legal Studies and Social Investigation (CEJIS) in Santa Cruz, which does consulting work for rural and indigenous communities. All of the bombs were thrown directly into the offices, said Director Adalid Montano. The bombs did not explode and no one was injured. Montano said they had not received prior warnings or threats.

''Our institution has the unique task of working for the rights of indigenous and rural organizations; we think that because of this we were assaulted this afternoon. We presume that small fascist groups that exist in Santa Cruz are responsible for this,'' said Montano.

Other human rights and indigenous rights agencies have suffered similar attacks in Santa Cruz within the last year, he added.

Opposition leaders then called a regional 24-hour strike on Aug. 19 that brought most commerce to a halt in the eastern regions of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija and Chuquisaca. This group of pro-autonomy governors insisted that the Morales administration return the millions of dollars collected by the Direct Hydrocarbon Tax, which gathered fees from oil and gas producing businesses in the area. Following that action were a series of road blockades, first between the opposition regions and other parts of the country, and then a brief blockade of national highways leading to Argentina and Paraguay. Along with the blockades came threats of shutting down gas pipelines that run across the nation and into other countries.

President Morales and his allies eventually did not agree to return the hydrocarbon taxes. Morales did, however, respond quickly to the threatened shutdown of the gas pipeline.

''I've spoken with Armed Forces commander in chief, General Luis Trigo, who has precise instructions to safeguard and defend the Bolivian people,'' Morales told an audience of supporters in the city of Cochabamba Aug. 23. ''The government will protect oil pipelines and gas.''

President Morales issued another decree stating that any interruption of regular civic affairs - including the cutting off of gas, road blocks, etc. - would be charged to the regional governments that allowed the actions to take place. The monies would be gathered by calculating the costs of the actions to the country and then deducted from fiscal revenues due from the national government to the regional authorities.

While Morales' decree was originally aimed at opposition forces, pro-Morales activists in the Chuquisaca region blockaded roads to the capital city of Sucre in the third week of August, and threatened to shut off the water pipelines leading into the city. As of press time the shutoff had not occurred. Other pro-Morales and Pro-MAS (Movement Towards Socialism party, which backs the president) groups clashed briefly with opposition forces in Santa Cruz as well.

One other group affiliated with President Morales, the Federation of San Julian Colonizers of the Santa Cruz region, threatened to occupy and seize the factory owned by opposition leader Branko Marinkovic, if he continued to insist on the return of funds from the Direct Hydrocarbon Tax.

In the meantime, opposition forces are looking at other means of working against the Morales administration while pro-Morales groups are seeking help from the national Department of Justice to prosecute the young men charged with several brutal assaults in Santa Cruz and other regions.