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Bolivian Referendum Points Up Clashing Visions
Programs for Poor, State vs. Regional Control in Dispute

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Aug. 5 -- Henrri Zeballos, a lawyer, and his wife, a dentist, gathered the kids in their minivan for a Sunday-morning drive through their home town of Santa Cruz.

People came out of their houses to watch them pass. Housewives shouted ugly slurs. Grown men and little girls thrust up their middle fingers in rage.

"This is natural," Zeballos said.

A young woman stopped washing a truck and shot the hose spray into the open window of the Zeballoses' van.

"It's okay. We don't want to fight. We'll get wet," Zeballos said.

Technically, what the Zeballos family took part in Sunday was a flag-waving parade in support of President Evo Morales. But their caravan was also a provocation, a gesture of defiance in an increasingly volatile country. Other cars in the parade were hit by rocks; on the street, fistfights broke out.

This city is the emotional heart of opposition to Morales, a relatively wealthy lowlands region that is pushing for autonomy and a free-market alternative to the socialist path pursued high in the western mountains by Morales, the first president from the country's indigenous majority.

On Sunday, the nation is scheduled to vote on a referendum on whether to recall Morales, his vice president and nearly all of the regional leaders, known as prefects. Polls suggest that Morales and several of the prefects will probably keep their positions.

But angry and violent protests against Morales are growing more common. On Tuesday, protesters descended on an airport in southern Bolivia, prompting presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina to cancel a planned visit. And two people were killed and several more injured during clashes with the police near Huanuni, Bolivia's largest tin mine, news services reported.

"Whatever the result, the referendum is going to show that this is a divided country," said Juan Carlos Rocha, editor of La Razón newspaper in Bolivia.

The conflict grows from two distinct and conflicting visions of the future of this small, impoverished country, where about 60 percent of residents identified themselves as indigenous (native cultures that predate the Europeans) in a 2001 census and roughly the same percentage live in poverty.

To supporters of Morales, his landslide victory in December 2005 marked a historic turning point, especially for downtrodden indigenous communities that for generations have provided cheap labor for rich businessmen, extracting from the ground silver, tin, oil and gas, and soybeans. While Morales has supporters of all economic and ethnic backgrounds, he has tended to focus his political priorities on the indigenous and other people of lower classes.

The former leader of a coca growers union has expanded cash payments to more than 2 million school-age children and the elderly. He has restructured contracts with international petroleum companies to give the government a higher percentage of the revenue. Public investment in roads and other projects has risen from $629 million in 2005 to $1.1 billion in 2007. The national budget has been in surplus the past two years, unimaginable in earlier years.

The prevailing concept, said the vice minister of the budget department, Emilio Pinto Marín, is to avoid unfair contracts and perks for big businesses and "to govern by obeying the people."

"Past governments focused more on businessmen so that they could generate wealth and distribute it. But it didn't happen. We've been waiting for 25 years for this to happen, and it never did," Pinto said. "President Morales, as a man of the people, a man from the countryside, an agriculturalist, he knows more than anybody about the needs of the people. He has launched a politics of redistribution of income."

These policies do not sit well in many parts of the country. Many critics say the Morales government focuses on the indigenous to the exclusion of other peoples. The government succeeded, they add, only in scaring away international investment, threatening local private enterprise and weakening the rule of law.

"They want the state to be in charge of everything," said Carlos Dabdoub, an author and leading member of the Santa Cruz civic committee, a prominent opposition group.

In a major challenge to the Morales administration, four regions -- Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija -- voted this year for autonomy from the central government, which considers the referendums to be illegal.

The autonomy movements demand more control of locally generated revenue and local management of health care, education, property rights and the police.

Common complaints heard in Santa Cruz, an important agricultural region, are that Morales has restricted exports, reduced petroleum tax payments to the regional governments and stood in the way of autonomy.

Morales said in a speech in Santa Cruz on Monday that he respects private property and that the region has been receiving more money during his administration than under previous presidents. As he addressed the crowd, assailants smashed the windows of his political party's headquarters in the city.

If Morales wins the referendum but does not accept Santa Cruz's referendum vote for autonomy, Dabdoub said, Santa Cruz will not recognize him as president. "Our maximum authority will rest with our governor," he said.

"Our issue is centralism. We want to get rid of centralism," said Branko Marinkovic, president of the Santa Cruz civic committee and an opposition leader. "Imagine if in San Francisco somebody needs a teacher, and Washington would have to appoint that teacher to a school. How would your country work? That's what's happening here."

For Morales's supporters, such arguments amount to the complaints of an embittered oligarchy at risk of losing its status. But the division transcends economics and has laid bare cultural and geographic differences as well. People from the Andean highlands, with its indigenous majority, often accuse those of Spanish descent in the lowlands of having a racist agenda.

"Everything looks bad to the people who used to be in power," said Felipe Montevilla, 55, a man of the Aymara ethnic group who attended a Morales rally in the town of Viacha, on the high plateau above the national capital, La Paz.

"For 500 years, they never had to tip their hat to an indigenous man. This problem is primarily racist," Montevilla said.

If Morales loses the recall referendum, he would be required to call for a new round of general elections in the coming weeks.

"Right now, I think progressive change depends on the power of the street. It doesn't depend on constitutional or legal norms. And that's a pity," said George Gray Molina, a Bolivian economist and former U.N. development official.

"What we're seeing is a political battle here. It's not just about decentralization. It's not just about autonomy. It's about who rules in Bolivia."

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