Massive dueling demonstrations over the weekend underscored the cleavages in the deeply divided nation of Bolivia, almost two years after President Evo Morales was elected its indigenous president. At the core of the dispute are Evo's attempts to redistribute wealth of the nation's lowlands to the nation's poor, indigenous majority, concentrated in its highlands.


Through the streets of Santa Cruz, crowds celebrated a self-declared "autonomy" proclaimed by four lowland provinces.

"This is a historic day," said Manfredo Bravo, 37, a university professor who was among thousands who attended an anti-Morales rally Saturday. "Santa Cruz will not accept a denial of liberty."

Joining the province of Santa Cruz are the gas-rich province of Tarija and Amazonian regions of Beni and Pando. The four provinces contain much of Bolivia's natural resource wealth and most of its large natural gas deposits, the second largest in South America, after Venezuela's.

Officials from the four provinces argue that Morales is steering the country toward a kind of authoritarian socialism in the model of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Morales patron. Morales denies any authoritarian aims and says he is being attacked for championing the cause of Bolivia's poor and disenfranchised.


Simultaneously on Saturday, throngs of Morales' backers filled the main plaza in La Paz, the nation's capital, to celebrate a draft constitution approved this month that would help Morales spread more of Bolivia's natural resources and wealth to the poor. The new charter goes to voters for approval next year.

"We are celebrating today the great triumph of the Bolivian people," said Morales, disparaging the pro-autonomy activists as traitors. "They want to divide Bolivia, but we won't let them."


For now, the autonomy movement seems more symbolic than anything else. Voters in the four pro-autonomy provinces are being asked to cast ballots next year on a proposal for greater independence.

Meanwhile, no serious violence was reported over the weekend, although police and army units were said to be in a state of high alert. Morales has warned that force would be used to counter any effort to divide this country of 9 million, generally considered South America's poorest.

Bolivia has a history of military coups but has maintained democratic rule in recent decades despite almost constant political turmoil.


The dispute in Bolivia has strong racial undertones.

Morales purports to represent the indigenous "majority," although others say most of Bolivia's population actually is mixed-race, not fully indigenous. Many immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and even Japan settled in and around subtropical Santa Cruz during the 20th century.

Morales, an Aymara Indian who grow up in poverty, has viewed his election as an opportunity to reverse centuries of domination by what he calls a European-descended, light-skinned elite.


The standoff between the more prosperous lowlands and the traditionally poor highlands could be mediated by European Union diplomats in coming days.