Bolivia's splitters

Evo Morales' opponents are pushing to break free of him and his pesky drive for a better deal for th

Bolivia’s white and near-white minority have been content to lord it over the Aymara and Quechua majority for nearly five centuries and see no reason to change.

And certainly not now, just when the money is beginning to flow in from oil and gas exports. Just when a traditionally bankrupt country has a balanced budget and a surplus on its foreign trade. Just when the Cruzeños, the respectable people in the self-regarding city of Santa Cruz, capital of the oil belt, are beginning to be able to afford their first Mercedes.

When the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century in what is now Bolivia, they overthrew the native peoples and their Inca empire, enslaving not just the Aymaras and Quechuas but Guaraníes, Chiquitanos, Ayoreos, Baures, Canichanas and twenty other races.

Merely because a poor itinerant Aymara trumpeter like Morales got a thumping majority in the 2005 presidential election is, for them, no reason to weaken the established order. Good grief, no.

If the poor benighted cholos and collas – the Bolivian equivalents to words like 'niggers' and 'coons' - learn to read what will they not demand, say the Cruzeños and their allies?

Bolivia’s legitimate, president meanwhile presses on with the new constitution - fairer to the dispossessed majority and the indigenous peoples - that he was elected to enact.

The right-wing majority in the upper house of congress, sabotaged the drafting but, in the absence of the opposition, this was adopted last month.

Opposition leaders thereupon called for civil disobedience, challenging the government for control of the streets, airports and oil and gas fields.

For good measure they have brought back the red herring of transferring the government and parliament from the country’s largest conurbation, La Paz, to the small rural Sucre, seat of the supreme court and the Bolivia’s official capital. That sort of sabotage would equate to transferring Whitehall and the British parliament to Old Sarum or Thetford.

And the Cruzeños and their allies are not alone. The Bush government has been alert since before the presidential elections, worried by Morales’ refusal to accept the US line on the outlawing of coca bushes (he is against the production of cocaine but utterly refuses to outlaw the leaf whose mild narcotic effect has been a harmless comfort to the inhabitants of the High Andes for millennia before the Europeans arrived).

Washington also fears his relationship with Venezuela’s President Chávez and the Cubans whose provision of free basic health care and ophthalmic surgery has understandably been immensely popular in Bolivia.

Before Bolivians voted in 2005 the US ambassador in La Paz warned them that if they elected Morales they would lose Washington’s cash and goodwill. Last month the President had to warn the US envoy not to meddle again in Bolivia’s internal affairs.

Morales, who is challenging the opposition to overthrow him in a referendum, has called for a cooling off period over Christmas. He must meanwhile keep a sharp eye on some US troops stationed in Bolivia. But he can count on the EU and on the South American presidents who met last weekend in Buenos Aires and who are backing him against those who would bring him low.