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Bolivia's Richest Region Votes Solidly for Autonomy
Referendum Is Major Rebuke to President Morales

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."

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 street.

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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