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Bolivians back Morales in recall vote

A bold gamble by President Evo Morales to break a political deadlock and re-energize his leftist revolution paid off as Bolivia’s voters resoundingly endorsed him in a recall referendum.
Aymara women queue to cast their ballot
Bolivian women belonging to the Aymara ethnic group line up to cast their ballots in Bolivia's recall referendum in El Alto, Bolivia, on Sunday. Martin Alipaz / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

A bold gamble by President Evo Morales to break a political deadlock and re-energize his leftist revolution paid off as Bolivia’s voters resoundingly endorsed him in a recall referendum.

More than 63 percent of voters in this bitterly divided Andean nation ratified the mandate of Bolivia’s first indigenous leader and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia, in Sunday’s vote, according to partial unofficial results.

Eight of the country’s nine governors also were subject to recall — and two Morales foes were among the three ousted, according to a private tally of votes from 1,000 of the country’s 22,700 polling stations.

Morales sought the referendum to try to topple governors who have frustrated his bid to improve the plight of Bolivia’s long-suppressed indigenous majority, which is concentrated in the country’s barren western highlands.

Bitter opposition in eastern Bolivia
His leftist agenda has met with bitter opposition in the landlocked country’s unabashedly capitalistic east, where protesters who accuse him of being a lackey of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez blockaded airports last week to keep Morales and his ministers from visiting.

All four governors there easily survived Sunday’s plebiscite, as expected.

But Morales did surprisingly well in those states. In one, Pando, he was endorsed by 51 percent of voters, while he won 40 percent approval or better in the other three, according to the vote tally by the Ipsos-Apoyo firm for the ATB television network.

First official returns, representing a fifth of the vote, on Monday showed Morales confirmed in his job with 52 percent. Rural areas where Morales has greater support tend to report more slowly than cities. It could take up to a week before the results are tallied.

“What happened today is important not only for Bolivians but for all Latin Americans,” Morales told several thousand cheering supporters Sunday night from the balcony of the presidential palace in La Paz. “I dedicate this victory to all the revolutionaries in the world.”

Call for unity
As supporters chanted “firm hand,” urging him to get tough with his lowland rivals, Morales instead called on all the country’s governors to work with him “for the unity of all Bolivians” — especially in fighting poverty.

Winning office in December 2005, Morales received 53.7 percent of the vote — at the time the best electoral showing for a Bolivian leader.

The Aymara politician has since nationalized the country’s natural gas fields and main telephone company, but the opposition has stymied his attempts to seize fallow eastern lands and give them to impoverished Indians.

Morales has also been unable to get a date set for a nationwide vote on a new constitution that would give indigenous groups more power and allow him to be re-elected to a second five-year term. The opposition walked out of the constituent assembly that wrote the document.

On Sunday, Morales gained with the defeat of opposition governors in the highland province of La Paz and in Cochabamba, seat of his coca-growers movement. An allied governor was ousted in the highlands province of Oruro.

Morales can now name interim governors pending provincial elections.

Resistance remains
But that does not mean Bolivia is entering a new era of reconciliation.

Cochabamba Gov. Manfred Reyes refused to step down, calling the referendum unconstitutional. Bloody street clashes broke out in the province last year when Morales supporters tried to oust Reyes.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ruben Costas of Santa Cruz, the soy-growing lowland center of resistance to Morales, won a strong endorsement in the referendum. He called Sunday’s outcome “a defeat for centralism” and said his province now would create its own police force and call elections for a provincial legislature.

Santa Cruz was the first of four provinces — including Beni, Tarija and Pando — to declare themselves autonomous this year in what have so far been largely symbolic moves.

The more prosperous eastern provinces have resisted Morales’ insistence that the central government control energy profits and decide how to distribute them.

Natural gas and precious metals revenues have boomed since Morales nationalized the gas fields in 2006 and renegotiated extraction contracts. Bolivia now keeps about 85 percent of these profits.

Chavez called and congratulated Morales on Sunday night, Venezuela’s foreign minister said in Caracas.

Oil-rich Venezuela has given Bolivia tens of millions of dollars and Morales’ government said Saturday that Venezuela and Iran were providing loans totaling up to $230 million to help it build two state-owned cement plants in the Andean highlands.