Morales has the support of much of Bolivia's indigenous community [Reuters]
Bolivians will head to the polls this Sunday for a vote on whether to recall the president, the vice-president, and eight provincial governors.
It is ostensibly a referendum on central government control against regional autonomy, but at its heart is a bitter dispute over the distribution of natural resources.
All of Latin America's historical fault lines converge in Bolivia.
It has the region's most unequal distribution of arable land with a minority of European descent owning the lion's share of land in the lush lowlands of the southeast and the indigenous majority concentrated in the barren Andean highlands in the west.
In an added bonus, the land claimed by the European settlers also contained the main deposits of Bolivia's most valuable resource, natural gas.
Though obscured by smouldering ethnic and class tensions, with the first indigenous president, Evo Morales, on one side, and fair-skinned land owners on the other, the current political crisis is about the control of gas, and the power and wealth that come with it.
Bolivia is unusual in that almost half of natural gas revenues go to the region from where they are extracted.
Those revenues have increased significantly due to the rise in international gas prices, and through the current administration's policy of nationalisation and aggressive renegotiation of contracts.
In January of this year, Morales diverted some of this new income for the creation of a national pension scheme, known as the "dignity pension", which would cover all Bolivians regardless of whether their working life had been spent in the formal or informal economy.
That, along with a proposed new constitution that would restore ancestral land rights to the indigenous majority, has produced a political backlash in the eastern provinces.
|Bolivia has been rocked by violent
protests as political tensions grow [AFP]
Four of them, a group known as the Half Moon, have held referenda on a series of proposals, all of which were ratified, that grant them the right to collect their own taxes, establish their own police forces, and control both their land and natural resources.
The challenge now facing Bolivia is the preservation of the authority of the central government in the face of this challenge, and thus guaranteeing the ongoing project to ensure an equitable distribution of national assets.
Morales has the international support of the usual suspects from the new left, most prominently Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, but the US has so far been silent.
The only significant recent engagement between the US and Bolivia has been on drug enforcement.
Yet it would seem that the struggles of a central government, composed of a previously disenfranchised majority, to assert control over its hydrocarbons, so that the wealth generated would be shared equally among all ethnic groups, would surely resonate with US policy.
The US champions such a government in Iraq, and has exerted immense political pressure for the passage of a law that recognises its immense oil deposits as a national resource, and guarantees an equal distribution of the revenue gained, so that everyone feels they have a stake in the preservation of the federal entity.
The opposition in Bolivia is emboldened, and Sunday's referendum may simply preserve the political stalemate, even if Morales survives.
Chavez has become the bogeyman of the right in Latin America, and is a lightning rod for the opposition.
This is one instance in which even a small gesture of support from Washington would have a dramatic effect.
Though US prestige has dimmed, and it is viewed as either hostile or irrelevant throughout much of Latin America, it still has political clout with the right.
It would be a rare opportunity for the US to show a sincere and universal commitment to its policies, beyond ideology.
It could also be a gesture that allows Bolivia to succeed where Iraq has so far failed.