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South American leaders scramble to tackle Bolivian crisis

Latest update : 2008-09-16

Leaders of the Union of South American Nations are meeting in Chile Monday to try to defuse the Bolivian crisis after a week of deadly clashes between opponents and supporters of President Evo Morales in the northern Pando province (photo).

South American presidents are racing to prevent a deeper political crisis in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has accused right-wing opponents of trying to topple him, but diplomacy may not be enough to avert more deadly protests.

Regional leaders will gather in the Chilean capital Santiago on Monday, hoping to repeat a diplomatic success scored in March when they coaxed Andean nations away from armed conflict that would have pitted Colombia, a U.S. ally, against Venezuela and Ecuador.

At that time, like now, the United States, which has seen its influence in Latin America wane because of President George W. Bush's war on terrorism and the rise of leftist leaders in the region, was not at the negotiating table.

Other regional heavyweights, especially Brazil, are stepping in to fill the void. And virtually all South American leaders, be they left-wing or conservative, have rallied around Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president.

The Bolivian government said on Sunday that Morales would fly to Santiago for the meeting with the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela.

"A civil war in Bolivia would be terrible not just for Bolivia but for the region. It would would affect the national security of many countries," said Ricardo Israel, a professor of international relations in Chile.

"Expectations are too high. The only thing the leaders can do is encourage both sides in Bolivia to negotiate, and it's not clear they will agree to do that."

TESTING TIMES

Bolivia, a volatile country in the center of South America, has suffered chaos in the past week during clashes between supporters of Morales and right-wing governors who want more autonomy. About 30 people have died.

The summit will be a test of the nascent South American Union of Nations, or Unasur, a 12-member group created in May. Its key members participated in a Group of Rio summit in March that quickly ended the Andean crisis.

Both groups are seen as alternatives to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States, or OAS.

In an unusual move, right-wing governors opposed to Morales' plans for deep socialist reforms demanded a seat at the table in Santiago with regional heads of state, though their plea could be denied.

The leaders may have their hands full just trying to craft a diplomatic response that pleases everybody.

Brazil, which depends on natural gas imports from Bolivia, is keenly worried about energy security, while Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Morales, has entered a loud diplomatic dispute with Washington.

Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador on Thursday -- after Morales threw out the American ambassador in La Paz and accused him of fomenting protests against his leftist government.

Washington, in retaliation, sent home diplomats from the two countries and imposed sanctions on Venezuelan officials it accused of helping Colombian rebels smuggle drugs.

"The Unasur leaders are in somewhat of a trap. On the one hand, they want to show their support to a democratic, unified and stable Bolivia. On the other, they need to distance themselves from Chavez's personal feud with the U.S.," said Patricio Navia, a political scientist at New York University.

Date created : 2008-09-15

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