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Crisis talks to avert Bolivian split

  • Story Highlights
  • Government representatives and opposition governors to meet next week
  • Initiative aims to keep country together after four governors declared autonomy
  • President Morales has met governors to discuss proposed constitution
  • Tension pits largely poor western part of Bolivia against the more wealthy east
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From Gloria Carrasco
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LA PAZ, Bolivia (CNN) -- Bolivian government representatives will meet with breakaway governors next week in a bid to avert a political split that threatens to tear the Andean country in half.

Indigenous Bolivians demonstrate in favor of the new constitution outside the presidential palace in La Paz.

Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, who held talks with provincial governors this week, has antagonized opponents in the gas-rich east with plans for a new constitution that would give more power to the indigenous population, who form a sizeable majority elsewhere in the country.

Morales, who became Bolivia's first indigenous president when he was elected in 2005, has vowed to redistribute the wealth from Bolivia's natural gas fields -- the second largest reserves in South America -- for the benefit of the whole population and has nationalized much of the country's oil and gas industry.

But his plans have been consistently opposed in eastern regions, based around the city of Santa Cruz where many multinational energy companies still operating in Bolivia are based and where most of the population trace their ancestry to Spain.

Those grievances came to a head last month when the governors of four provinces -- Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando -- declared autonomy from the central government in the capital, La Paz, after Morales' allies in the National Assembly approved plans for a controversial new consitution.

The constitution, which has still to be endorsed by voters, would impose heavier taxes on the four breakaway states, as well as overturning a two-term presidential limit, allowing Morales to run for president indefinitely.

Governors in eastern Bolivia opposed the proposed constitution because it was passed without the presence of opposition legislators.

The political standoff has also provoked protests and violence in cities across the notoriously volatile country.

At least three people were reported killed during opposition protests in the central city of Sucre, where a special assembly has been drafting the new constitution.

Last month Morales vowed to defend the new constitution and lashed out at what he called the racist politics of Bolivia's elite as he addressed thousands of supporters in La Paz.

"They must give back the money they took from us," he told a cheering crowd. "We will retroactively investigate all the big fortunes, and the corrupt are now trembling with fear."

Morales also cautioned those who he said wanted a "a division, a coup d'etat," The Associated Press reported. "We won't permit Bolivia to be divided," he warned. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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