Bolivia's Richest Region Votes Solidly for Autonomy

Santa Cruz residents line up to cast ballots. Several other regions also have scheduled autonomy referendums.
Santa Cruz residents line up to cast ballots. Several other regions also have scheduled autonomy referendums. (By Roberto Candia -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 5, 2008

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 Monday.

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 resources.

"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 infighting.

"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."

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