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Bolivia's autonomy referendums signal rightist backlash

On Sunday, the Amazonian states of Beni and Pando voted overwhelmingly in favor of more autonomy from the socialist government of Evo Morales.

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Peña Esclusa, who runs a nongovernmental organization in Caracas called Fuerza Solidaria that resists the "cubanization" of Venezuela, says he would like to take cooperation much further. In Bolivia he met with opposition leaders and media outlets to gather support for a cross-national body he wants to form called the Organization for the Defense of America.

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"We used to just do politics internally inside our own countries," he says. But the atmosphere is changing with the elections of left-wing governments across the region, he says. "That is why the opposition in Latin America has started to work together because we are facing an international enemy. It's not just Chávez. It is him and all his friends."

Bolivia: the epicenter of protest

Perhaps the boldest opposition in Latin America today stems from the lowlands of Bolivia, where conservative leaders pushed forward with the referendum vote even though the government had declared it illegal. Last month in Santa Cruz, when announcing their victory to shield the province from Morales's draft constitution that would create a new society based on socialist and indigenous values, they stood united, their arms held high in the air.

"This is not the end of the process," declared Gov. Ruben Costas, in Santa Cruz's central plaza where Peña Esclusa was reveling in the celebration. "With your vote, we have begun the most transcendental reform in national memory."

In other countries, the opposition has failed to gain such traction. In Nicaragua, where US cold-war nemesis Daniel Ortega is back in power, opposition leaders formed a "bloc against the dictatorship" in December in the National Assembly but it has made little headway. Lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro says that the opposition shares political and ideological views, but that personal interests get in the way. "Everyone wants to be a general; no one wants to be a soldier," says Mr. Navarro, who has run unsuccessfully for both president and mayor of Managua.

In Ecuador, too, the opposition has basically collapsed, says Adrian Bonilla, a political analyst at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito. "They haven't had an agenda in the last year and a half, they have just opposed every issue coming from the president," he says.

In many cases, the opposition in Latin America has been stunted because they have not "come to grips" with the deep-seated shift under way in the region, says Mr. Shifter.

Yet, in part spurred on by Chávez's ideological war against the traditional elites, the opposition has moved into defense mode. In Venezuela, it has been unable to counter his influence, financed by oil wealth that he lavishly spends in other countries. He has formed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, known as ALBA – a trade alliance with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia to reduce dependence on institutions such as the World Bank.

To opposition leaders in Bolivia, this is proof enough that they must start acting. "Chávez owns the Bolivian government, and is the biggest threat to democracy in Latin America," says Jorge Quiroga, a former Bolivian president who heads Bolivia's main opposition party.

It is a sentiment that some say is overblown, but which he is convinced is real, based on his travels across the region, talking with students, business leaders, and politicians. "What happens [in Venezuela] affects us all," he said in an interview in Santa Cruz recently. "This will be a long struggle, but I know it will prevail."

Some have little faith that the opposition will be able to create a united front, and if they do, their efforts could backfire. "Their idea of a solid Chávez-led axis in the region could become a self-fulfilling prophecy," Shifter says. "Perhaps inadvertently they will be giving Chávez the sort of aggrandizing role that he has been seeking."

Tim Rogers reported from Nicaragua.