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A Rich State in Bolivia Moves Toward More Autonomy

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/29/international/americas/29bolivia.html A Rich State in Bolivia Moves Toward More Autonomy By JUAN FORERO Published: January
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 29, 2005

      A Rich State in Bolivia Moves Toward More Autonomy

      Published: January 29, 2005

      SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Jan. 28 - Leaders of the affluent
      eastern state of Santa Cruz, which functions as
      Bolivia's economic engine, claimed an important
      victory in their fight for regional autonomy on
      Friday, naming a provisional assembly to prepare the
      legal framework for greater independence.

      The movement for autonomy, which grew out of public
      protests this month against a government increase in
      fuel prices, is the latest crisis to strike the
      chronically weak government of President Carlos Mesa.

      Hoping to end protests since it raised
      government-subsidized diesel prices on Dec. 30, Mr.
      Mesa's government has acceded to two main demands from
      pro-autonomy leaders. One lets voters elect the
      state's highest official, the prefect, whom the
      president currently appoints. The other advances to
      June a binding referendum asking residents if they
      want autonomy, a vote that is likely to pass.

      Though he did not rescind the fuel price increase, as
      leaders here had demanded, Mr. Mesa did slightly lower
      it. By late Friday afternoon, tens of thousands of
      people had gathered to celebrate.

      "We feel satisfied because we have fulfilled the
      people's wishes," said Carlos Dabdoub, a neurosurgeon
      and former health minister who is a leader of the
      autonomy movement. "Today we have a historic victory
      and the defeat of a centralist state."

      The government's softened stance has, for now, defused
      what had become the most serious crisis in the
      15-month presidency of Mr. Mesa, a journalist who has
      struggled to placate the nationalistic,
      antiglobalization indigenous majority in the highlands
      and the pro-capitalist leaders here in lowland Santa
      Cruz state.

      But some political analysts warned that by giving in,
      Mr. Mesa would embolden both the leaders of Santa
      Cruz, who want more regional independence, and the
      leaders of the indigenous population, who are
      demanding that the government nationalize foreign
      firms and scale back market reforms.

      "It's a government that has ceded to all pressure,"
      said �lvaro Garc�a, a sociologist in La Paz, the
      capital, who has advised the country's most formidable
      indigenous leader, Evo Morales. "It's a government
      just interested in surviving, and so it reacts to
      pressure. That's dangerous."

      The delicate balancing act - coming after Mr. Mesa's
      immediate predecessor, Gonzalo S�nchez de Lozada, was
      forced out amid violent protests in October 2003 - may
      yet fail. The possibility that Mr. Mesa's fragile
      government will collapse is alarming to the United
      States, which worries that chaos here will mean a
      revitalized drug trade, and to other Andean countries,
      which have also been rocked by violent
      antiglobalization protests in recent years.

      Mr. Mesa's latest concession came after he raised the
      price of diesel fuel by 23 percent and of gasoline by
      10 percent, inciting strikes in the largely indigenous
      city of El Alto. Mr. Mesa responded by reducing the
      increases and canceling a government contract with a
      French water utility that was unpopular in El Alto.

      But Santa Cruz residents were not mollified. They
      stepped up their own strikes to protest the fuel
      increases, with an eye toward a greater prize: forcing
      the government to speed up efforts leading to
      political and fiscal autonomy.

      "We don't believe in the central government,"
      explained Branko Marinkovic, general manager of a
      family-run conglomerate and leader of a federation of

      So far, by negotiating with Bolivia's divergent and
      dogmatic political groups, Mr. Mesa has managed to
      keep violence to a minimum and hold his country
      together. He remains popular, having placated the
      country's most determined antiglobalization forces by
      pushing a referendum last year that may lead to laws
      giving the government more control of the oil and gas

      But Eduardo Gamarra, the Bolivian-born director of the
      Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida
      International University in Miami, said Mr. Mesa
      remained chronically weak and unable to make hard
      decisions. With few allies in the Bolivian Congress,
      and no strong influence over the security forces, Mr.
      Mesa's government has looked increasingly paralyzed,
      Mr. Gamarra said.

      "He waits until things get so bad because he doesn't
      want to use force and he doesn't want to insult
      anybody," said Mr. Gamarra, who speaks to Mr. Mesa
      from time to time. "Then he is pushed into a corner
      and he gives in to them."

      After Mr. Mesa's concession to Santa Cruz state, civic
      committees in the states of La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro
      and Potos�, all with large indigenous Indian
      communities, have filed proposals for direct elections
      so they can choose state officials who are now
      appointed. Meanwhile, groups opposed to autonomy or
      allied with coca-growing organizations have promised
      to step up protests.

      Here in this city of 1.4 million on the edge of the
      Amazon, anger against Mr. Mesa has mounted, and civic
      leaders have watched with concern as restive Indian
      groups have won one political battle after another,
      making the indigenous majority a formidable force.

      Some say they believe that in appeasing his opponents,
      Mr. Mesa has swayed so far to the left that Bolivia is
      headed toward economic ruin.

      "They are openly communist people," Mr. Marinkovic
      said, referring to members of Mr. Mesa's
      administration. "That's how you start, moving slowly.
      You don't do Bolshevik revolutions. You do it little
      by little."

      While at least publicly many here would disagree with
      that assessment, Santa Cruz's businessmen say they
      fear that the left-leaning indigenous movements could,
      in time, take over in Bolivia.

      That feeling has propelled Santa Cruz residents, known
      as Cruce�os, to seek greater control over the state's
      finances and government, a crucial step because Santa
      Cruz is underrepresented in Congress.

      The road to autonomy will still be long and
      complicated, because rules governing taxes and
      spending will have to be changed. However, the current
      prefect, Carlos Hugo Molina, recognized Santa Cruz's
      new direction by resigning Thursday.

      "I do not want to be an obstacle," he said at a news conference.
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