LA PAZ, Bolivia – President Evo Morales seeks a new mandate for his socialist agenda today in a nationwide referendum that reflects deep divisions in this troubled South American nation.
Morales, his vice president and eight state governors face recall votes that could throw them all of office. Polls indicate that Morales probably will retain his job, although several governors who oppose his policies could lose theirs.
A tense atmosphere prevails across the country. Violent anti-government demonstrations and airport blockades forced the cancellation of an energy summit with the presidents of Argentina and Venezuela. There have been threats to obstruct the vote and reports of gunfire directed at the vehicle of a Cabinet member.
“I’m sorry to say it, but now the dictatorships of the ’60s and ’70s are being replaced by some groups that take airports, occupy electoral offices and take shots at ministers’ cars,” Morales said at a rally last week.
The anti-government protests have made it difficult for Morales, Bolivia’s first Indian president, to travel outside of his stronghold in the capital and the surrounding western highlands. His efforts to redistribute land and income in South America’s poorest nation have made him a hero to the struggling Indian masses and left-wing activists worldwide.
But many middle-class Bolivians who once supported Morales have defected. And hostility to his government is fierce in the relatively prosperous, generally pro-capitalist lowlands. Four lowland states have voted for autonomy, which Morales calls an illegal maneuver to divide the country. Opposition leaders likewise label today’s referendum an unlawful vote.
Both sides are using the disputed elections to push their vision of the future for this landlocked nation of 10 million.