Bolivia's Richest Region Votes Solidly for Autonomy
Referendum Is Major Rebuke to President Morales
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, May 4 -- Bolivia's wealthiest
region voted Sunday to distance itself from the
central government, directly defying President Evo
Morales with a measure that aims to give local
authorities more power over resources.
Morales had urged his supporters to ignore the
referendum, but turnout was unofficially reported at
61 percent. Multiple exit polls suggested Sunday about
85 percent of Santa Cruz voters voted in favor of the
proposal, but final results were not expected before
The measure directs Santa Cruz authorities -- mainly
business leaders who detest Morales's socialist
initiatives -- to take more control of locally
produced tax revenue, police forces and property
The measure, considered the most serious challenge yet
to Morales's presidency, intensified long-standing
regional divisions that have made social unrest a
defining feature of the political landscape. Scattered
clashes between voters and Morales's supporters
erupted throughout the day, but the massive disorder
that some had feared did not occur.
"It's a historic day, and tomorrow we have more work
to do," said Branko Marinkovic, a leader of the Santa
Cruz autonomy movement. "We have to determine a new
course for Bolivia, and it won't be an easy task."
Because the national government considers the
referendum illegal, its true effect remains unclear.
Morales, who had likened it to a nonbinding opinion
poll, on Sunday night dismissed it as "a failure."
"This poll, which is illegal and unconstitutional, was
not the success that they hoped for," Morales said
during a televised speech, which was delivered while
thousands filled the streets of Santa Cruz in a
massive victory celebration. ". . . Between the
abstention rate of 39 percent, the votes 'no' and the
blank ballots, that is practically 50 percent."
Political analysts predicted that the voters' approval
of the measure, however, will give regional leaders
traction that could force negotiations in an
ideological stalemate over divisions of power. Or it
could make an eventual collision even more jarring.
Five more of the country's nine regional governments
have scheduled or are considering similar referendums
in the coming months, which autonomy supporters
contend could dramatically change the country's
political outlook. The six regions together account
for most of the country's revenue and natural
"This is a movement that is just taking root but will
help define the country for years and years," said
Vanesa Alvarado, who traveled to Santa Cruz on Sunday
with a group of autonomy supporters from the region of
Tarija, which plans an autonomy vote next month.
"We're watching everything that happens here so that
we can be experts on the process when we go back home
and have our own referendum."
On Sunday night, Morales suggested that he is willing
to talk with regional leaders about addressing some of
their concerns within the framework of a new
constitution. For more than two years, Morales's
efforts to rewrite the constitution have been mired by
"Santa Cruz is showing that the autonomy movement is
not just made up of a few people, but has wide social
support," said Gonzalo Chávez, a political analyst in
La Paz. "Now they have to develop and organize the
legal and institutional framework to put that support
to work. It will take time. But step by step, I think,
Bolivia is in the process of building a new type of
political system, a more federal system where the
regions have more power."
Many of the people who elected Morales, however, argue
that the changes are unfairly undercutting
presidential democracy. Shortly after Marinkovic, the
movement leader, cast his ballot here, protesters in
La Paz burned an effigy of him in one of several
demonstrations throughout the country against the
autonomy push. In Plan 3000 -- a poor neighborhood on
the outskirts of this city -- Morales supporters
confiscated ballot boxes and set them afire in the
Like Morales, many of those protesters were born in
the country's western highlands and claim Aymara or
Quechua Indian ancestry. Many autonomy leaders,
however, are of European descent. Some protesters said
they believe the autonomy drive is fueled by racism
against Morales, who has said he aims to redress 500
years of discrimination by giving Bolivia's indigenous
populations more power.
Fernando Villarroel, 17, gathered with several dozen
other opponents of the referendum on a street in Plan
3000. They spoke of the vote as a clearly drawn class
struggle. The leaders of the autonomy movement -- such
as Marinkovic and Rubén Costas, the elected prefect,
or governor, of the district -- are considered by many
in the indigenous communities of Bolivia to be members
of a wealthy elite who cannot be trusted.
"We're going to burn all the ballots that we can,
because this is illegal. We can't let the rich take
over this country again," Villarroel said.
Jhonny Osinaga, 43, who stood nearby over the bonfire
of ballots, added: "The autonomy leaders are a mafia
who will only stick their hands in our pockets to take
what little money we have. They'll get in power and
charge us more for gas and electricity. We have no
choice but to fight."
In most parts of the city, where support for autonomy
was overwhelming, the mood was more festive than
angry. Voters lingered outside polling places in the
city's affluent zones, buying ice cream from roadside
vendors and listening to music from car speakers.
Santa Cruz residents often call themselves "camba," a
term that aims to give cultural identity to the
mixed-ethnicity natives of the region. Almost
universally, they view Morales's efforts to elevate
indigenous culture within Bolivia as divisive and
"A lot of people in other parts of Bolivia see us in a
bad light, because there's a lot of rancor that is
carried over from colonial times," said Dennis
O'Connor D'Arlach, 28, a lawyer who voted for
autonomy. "But we're mestizos here. We don't harbor
ethnic hatred. This is the 21st century. We have to
move on from that."
"I voted for Morales, but now I'm voting for
autonomy," Hilda Altamirano, a hairstylist in Santa
Cruz, said after casting her ballot. "I thought he'd
bring a change and help distribute the wealth of the
country more fairly, but he only pays attention to the
members of his own party. So I still want change. I
want a government that's fair."