Clashes in Bolivia on Vote Over More Autonomy
May 5, 2008 - NY Times


SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia -- Street clashes broke out here and in small towns in the surrounding countryside on Sunday as Santa Cruz, Bolivia's largest province and a bastion of separatist groups, held a referendum on measures that would give it greater autonomy from the government of President Evo Morales.

(left) Supporters of President Evo Morales, who was against the referendum, burned ballot boxes in the town of Yapacani. Photo: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky for The New York Times

Still, voting unfolded without hindrance at most polling places even as Mr. Morales denounced the vote as illegal and some of his supporters laid siege to voting stations in isolated attacks. Dozens of people were injured in the scattered clashes, according to radio reports, including one demonstrator hit by a dynamite blast in the town of Montero.

At least one death was reported, an elderly man affected by tear gas that was fired at protesters in Plan Tres Mil, a sprawling slum here in the provincial capital. As polling stations closed, hundreds of pro- and anti-autonomy youths wielding sticks ran through the slum as the riot police, ordered to refrain from battling the protesters, stood idle.

(left) Demonstrators against an autonomy referendum in the Bolivian province of Santa Cruz attacked a voter Sunday in Plan Tres Mil, a slum in the provincial capital. Photo: Leo La Valle/European Pressphoto Agency

Even before official results were announced, provincial officials declared victory to thousands of supporters here on Sunday night.

The vote deepens the rift between Mr. Morales's vision for Bolivia, in which the country's wealth in natural resources would be used to improve the lives of its impoverished Indians, and that of Santa Cruz, a prosperous, ethnically diverse province where many of those resources are found.

"We do not want the creation of another republic," said Carlos Pablo Klinsky, a provincial lawmaker who helped draft the statute. "But we do want control over our own destiny and our own resources."

The referendum's opponents, many of whom were indigenous migrants from the highlands, denounced it as an unconstitutional ploy by the province's light-skinned political elite.

"This statute is grossly illegitimate," said René Hilari, 28, a lawyer who lives in Plan Tres Mil, as stone-throwing protesters gathered nearby amid the stench of burning trash and open sewage. "The elite of Santa Cruz want to push this autonomy down the throat of the nation and we do not want it."

Although the statute was expected to be approved, efforts by Mr. Morales's supporters in Santa Cruz to encourage people to weaken its legitimacy by not voting also appeared to have succeeded. Preliminary analysis by electoral officials showed that almost 40 percent of eligible voters did not vote.

The statute would give Santa Cruz the ability to elect its own legislature, create its own police force and raise new taxes for public works. It is expected to allow the province to negotiate its own royalty agreements with energy companies.

(left) A woman cast her vote Sunday in the Santa Cruz community of Santa Fe. The autonomy statute was expected to be approved.
photo: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky for The New York Times

And it would also effectively halt Mr. Morales's efforts to break up large rural estates in the province and redistribute the land among impoverished indigenous migrants.

But it remains unclear which of these measures, if any, will be implemented.

They face strong resistance from the central government. In a stern warning to the province on Saturday night, Gen. Luis Trigo, the head of Bolivia's armed forces, called the referendum a threat to national security.

Questions also remain over its legality and, especially regarding the royalty agreements, how realistic it may be.

Although Santa Cruz and other lowland provinces produce the bulk of the country's natural gas, the largest gas customers, Argentina and Brazil, have given no indication of being ready to cut deals with Santa Cruz.

"As long as Brazil and Argentina believe the central government is still in control, and as long as they sympathize ideologically with Evo, they won"t recognize the validity of the referendum," said Miguel Centellas, a political scientist at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., who is from Santa Cruz.

Still, the vote is a defining moment in efforts to dismantle one of Latin America's most centralized political systems, and was closely watched in three other provinces that are considering their own autonomy proposals, as well as other Latin American countries that face similar regional power struggles.

(left) Map: Bolivia’s economy revolves around the city of Santa Cruz.
Photo: The New York Times

Still, few countries in the region contain Bolivia's contrasts, with presidents ruling from the sleepy capital, La Paz, on the impoverished, windswept high plains, while the country's economy revolves around Santa Cruz, a boomtown in the fertile lowlands. There avenues of glistening office buildings house some of Bolivia's largest private companies and the headquarters of most foreign corporations operating in the country.

Besides finance and resource extraction, Santa Cruz is also home to agribusiness concerns that produce much of the nation's food. The city has grown to 1.5 million residents from about 50,000 just a few decades ago.

In this battle's most recent round, Mr. Morales announced the nationalization last week of four energy companies and Entel, the country's largest telecommunications company, a move that was seen here as a direct challenge to the region's economic might.

The election in 2005 of Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian, as Bolivia's first indigenous president was heralded as a democratic triumph, but the strong centralization and structures of previous authoritarian governments still permeate the country's politics.

For instance, routine matters like the formation of a new union or professional association must be carried out in La Paz, something that the referendum would change in this province of 2.6 million. Three other eastern provinces are awaiting the outcome of the vote here before proceeding with votes on their own statutes in the coming months.

Supporters of Mr. Morales point out that the statute was drafted behind closed doors by an assembly handpicked by members of the province's political elite. They say it also reveals racial tensions in Santa Cruz.

The statute, for example, recognizes the rights of lowland indigenous groups like the Chiquitanos and Guarayos, but does not do the same for Aymaras and Quechuas, Bolivia's two largest ethnic groups, despite the migration of hundreds of thousands of Aymaras and Quechuas from the highlands to Santa Cruz in recent decades.

Silvestre Saisari, a Quechua Indian and a prominent land-rights advocate here, warned that the autonomy statute could set in motion events unforeseen by the politicians of Santa Cruz, like the declaration of autonomy by indigenous groups in the province.

"The white elite want Balkanization on their own terms, but they should be careful what they wish for," Mr. Saisari said in an interview. "I might die fighting against their views, but not before taking some of them with me."