Bolivia: mutiny in the provinces
June 2, 2008 - Radio Netherlands Worldwide

by Correspondent Cees Zoon -RNW translation (mw)

On Sunday, another two Bolivian departments voted for autonomy. The referendum was accompanied by confrontations between supporters and opponents of autonomy, road blocks and the burning of ballot boxes. With a majority of nearly half a million, the residents of Beni and Pando voted for a statute that will make them more independent of President Evo Morales' government.

Beni and Pando, which together make up Bolivia's Amazon region, were following in the footsteps of the country's largest department, Santa Cruz. With a majority of no less than 85 percent, Santa Cruz chose autonomy in its referendum on 4 May. Another referendum is scheduled to be held on 21 June in Tarija, where most of Bolivia's gas reserves are located.
Celebrating the refenrdum result in Pando

(right) Celebrating the result of the referendum in Pando
(Photo: Martin Alipaz/EPA)

The government has declared the referenda illegal and its position has won international backing including from the European Union and the Organisation of American States. However, it remains to be seen if the threatened disintegration of the country can be stopped now that five of its nine departments are demanding autonomous status.

The ‘mutinous' departments accuse the central government in La Paz of neglecting their interests and say it is time they managed their own affairs. They form the crescent of land surrounding the Andes and the high plateau where most of Bolivia's indigenous peoples live. The would-be autonomous departments are generally wealthy and home to white people. The government accuses them of pushing autonomy in order not to have to share their wealth with Bolivia's poorer regions.

Countryside Development Minister Susana Rivero, who herself comes from Beni, says: "This autonomy only serves to protect the interests of the elite of a few rich families. Beni's present prefect, Ernesto Suarez, is the last prefect's son, and so it continues. The same few families want to keep control of my home department in order to carry on stealing."

Beni's wealth cannot be compared to that of Santa Cruz: 70 percent of Beni's residents live below the poverty line. Pando's only recent claim to fame has been its violent war between drugs gangs.

Disrupted and divided
Normal life in Bolivia has been disrupted by the issue of autonomy with its corollary of referenda. On 10 August, a ‘recall referendum' will be held in which the electorate will decided whether President Morales, Vice President Álvaro Linares and the nine departmental prefects should be dismissed or keep their jobs. The result of the upheaval is that impoverished Bolivia is not working. The whole country is in the grips of non-stop campaigning, demonstrations, road blocks and fighting in the street.

The country is hopelessly divided, not only politically and economically, but also racially. The opposition accuses Mr Morales, an Aymara Indian and the first member of the indigenous community to have won the presidency, of implementing ethnically centred policies which will put Bolivia back 500 years. The government counters with the allegation that the rich elite in the provinces have never bothered to hide their racism and are now refusing to pay towards the development of the impoverished indigenous communities. This is denied by the supporters of autonomy, but taking over the management of provincial treasuries is at the top of their policy agenda.

All attempts to bring the two sides closer together have so far failed. Dialogue has in fact been suspended since the governing MAS socialist party used its parliamentary majority to push through a new constitution. The autonomy issue is set to make the divide between the two sides in Bolivia even wider.