August 19, 2008 / 3:59 PM / 11 years ago

Foes of Morales stage general strike in Bolivia

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Bolivian governors opposed to President Evo Morales’ leftist reforms staged a general strike on Tuesday in five of the country’s nine provinces, demanding a bigger share of energy revenues.

The protest was organized just nine days after Morales won more than 67 percent of votes to survive a recall referendum. The vote, however, also confirmed his main right-wing rivals in office, deepening a power struggle that has raged all year.

Shops and banks were closed on Tuesday and traffic was down to a trickle on the streets of Santa Cruz, the capital of the country’s farming heartland. One-day strikes were also held in Beni, Pando, Tarija and Chuquisaca provinces, with local media reporting greater participation in urban areas.

The governors want Morales to stop taking energy revenue previously earmarked for the provinces to pay for a national pension scheme. But Morales says they can afford to help with anti-poverty programs because their coffers swelled after he hiked taxes on energy companies in 2006.

“Everyone is complying with the strike ... our regions need to recover these resources,” protest leader Branko Marinkovic told reporters in Santa Cruz early on Tuesday before calling Morales “a dictator.”

Although Marinkovic said he wanted to avoid violence, young people were seen coming in and out of his office building carrying batons and baseball bats.

After a recent, failed meeting with the opposition governors, Morales said they “only want money” while his foes accused him of trying to strangle them financially.

The president had to cancel rallies ahead of the recall vote in some regions due to violence, and last week anti-government protesters in Santa Cruz beat up two police officers in front of TV cameras.

The impoverished country’s first indigenous president, Morales draws most of his support from Aymara and Quechua Indians living in the western Andean highlands.

But his political rivals in the wealthier eastern regions, home to the county’s vast natural gas reserves and rich farmland, reject his policies and fear his ultimate goal is to turn Bolivia into a Cuban-style socialist state.

Morales belongs to a group of leftist leaders in Latin America that has boosted state control over natural resources, among them Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Morales nationalized the energy sector, raising taxes on foreign companies, and took over mining and telecommunications ventures previously run by large multinationals.

Stiff opposition from governors and right-wing lawmakers has forced him to freeze a plan to redistribute land among the poor and implement a new constitution he says would help stamp out discrimination against the Indian majority.

Graffiti in the steamy city of Santa Cruz, where opposition to Morales is strongest, called the president a “fascist,” “the Antichrist” and a “minion” of Venezuela’s Chavez.

In speeches, Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas has called Morales a criminal and described government ministers as “a pack of dogs.”

But many people in the striking regions support Morales. In the recall referendum, he won over 50 percent of votes in Pando and Chuquisaca, while in the other three provinces — Santa Cruz, Tarija and Beni — he got over 40 percent, mainly due to strong support in rural areas. (Editing by Hilary Burke and David Storey)

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