A Rich State in Bolivia Moves Toward More Autonomy
By JUAN FORERO
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
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
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.