Bolivian assembly restarts under military guard
Friday. November 23, 2007, 7:09pm EST - Reuters

Related News: Thousands march in support of Bolivia‘s Morales

SUCRE, Bolivia, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Bolivian police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters as the assembly rewriting the country's constitution reconvened on Friday under military guard three months after violent demonstrations forced it to suspend its work.

Opposition delegates boycotted Friday's session, which the party of leftist President Evo Morales, using its slim majority in the assembly's governing body, had moved from downtown Sucre to an army facility on the city's outskirts.

The assembly had been forced to suspend deliberations in mid-August after days of demonstrations in the southern city of Sucre by protesters calling for the relocation of Bolivia's capital.

"We cannot waste time. What we want is to honor our mandate and produce a new constitution," said Felix Cardenas, a delegate from the minority party National Conciliation during the debate on Friday, which was boycotted by most opposition delegates.

The assembly's mandate expires on Dec. 14.

The conflict over the capital stems from a power struggle between Morales and his conservative rivals, who want more autonomy for the regions they govern and also support the capital switch.

Nominally, Sucre is the South American country's capital, but it is only home to the top courts, while the legislature and the seat of government are in La Paz, a bastion of support for Morales.


Morales supporters have staged massive protests in recent weeks opposing the calls for the capital's relocation, and thousands of them traveled to Sucre this week pledging to "defend" the assembly.

During the campaign that brought him to office nearly two years ago, Morales said the assembly would serve to cast a mold for a new state in which the country's indigenous majority would have a greater say.

The assembly was convened in August 2006 as a democratic forum to discuss autonomy as well as indigenous rights but the polarization between delegates spilled into the streets earlier this year after the ruling party refused to discuss the capital issue.

Protesters in Sucre have complained that Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, is governing only for his Quechua and Aymara power base in the west of the country, ignoring the needs of the middle classes and the inhabitants of eastern regions.

Earlier this week, the rightist opposition called for "civil disobedience" in the eastern regions they govern, where opposition to Morales is strong, and vowed to flout the new constitution.

Morales, a strong ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, has accused the opposition of stoking the protests in Sucre in a bid to wreck the assembly. (Reporting by David Mercado; Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Bill Trott)