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Bolivia's Richest Region Votes Solidly for Autonomy

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/04/AR2008050402147.html?wpisrc=newsletter Bolivia s Richest Region Votes Solidly for Autonomy
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2008

      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
      ownership administration.

      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
      racially exclusionary.

      "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."
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