Push for autonomy shakes Bolivia

The gas-rich province of Santa Cruz voted Sunday for less central government control, raising tensions with leftist President Evo Morales and his supporters.

Pilar Olivares/Reuters
Leftist: President Evo Morales called the vote illegal.
Dado Galdieri/AP
We won: Pro-autonomy residents celebrated Sunday in Santa Cruz, after the referendum passed.

Here in the tropical lowlands of Bolivia, opposition leaders are talking in terms tinged with revolutionary zeal: May 4, they say, is the day a new Bolivia was reborn, since voters overwhelmingly approved statutes for more autonomy from the central government.

The referendum, which gives Santa Cruz Province control over the soy and gas that abound in its territory, deepens the rift with Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president.

But the coming days, weeks, and months will determine how historic May 4 really becomes. Is this the beginning of a less centralized form of government? Or will May 4 be remembered as just another of many clashes as opposition leaders resist a president who is part of the new crop of Latin American leftists?

No one knows what comes next. For now Mr. Morales has played down the repercussions of the referendum, dismissing it as illegal and accusing the regions of a separatist plot. But analysts say Sunday's vote could force Morales to the negotiating table and weaken his efforts to "refound" Bolivia with a new Constitution and strong central government that he says is necessary to buoy the country's long underrepresented indigenous majority.

Santa Cruz is the first of four provinces planning similar votes in coming weeks, and their combined outcome could be one the government will not be able to ignore. "Now the real challenges come," says Oscar Montes, the mayor of the neighboring lowland provincial capital city of Tarija who was in Santa Cruz to support the referendum; his province will be holding an autonomy vote next month. "The task of constructing will be great, but we have entered a new stage and there is no turning back."

History of the push for autonomy

The call for regional autonomy in this wealthy province began well before Morales took office, but it has escalated ever since.

In a 2006 referendum, the nation overall rejected a regional autonomy plan but four provinces, including Santa Cruz, overwhelmingly approved it. The issue grew more tense last year when Morales supporters and autonomy advocates could not reconcile their views on it during the writing of a new constitution. Opposition leaders refused to participate and forged forward with their own interpretation.

On Sunday, exit polls showed that 85 percent of voters approved the Santa Cruz initiative. Morales has long maintained it is illegitimate, since the electoral court said it would not certify results. Groups here also opposed to autonomy abstained from voting, which likely skewed the outcome. "We will not vote because we cannot legalize, justify, or legitimize something that is illegal," says Pedro Nuny Caity, the vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Communities of Bolivia in Santa Cruz.

Not trying to secede?

But opposition leaders insist it is legal and denounce critics' claims that they are trying to secede. "We say nothing of separatism in the statutes," says Jose Luis Santistevan, a legal adviser in Santa Cruz who helped pen the statutes. "It is nothing more than political, administrative, and financial decentralization."

Among the changes that Santa Cruz voted in are more control over its natural-gas reserves and overseeing the amount of land that can be distributed – a blow to Morales's land redistribution plan.

Some of those changes will take place immediately. As of Monday, for example, provincial leader Ruben Costas will be officially named a "governor," and in 90 days state legislators will be elected by popular vote.

But all of the measures that could lead to confrontations with the government, such as tax revenues and land distribution, will first be negotiated, opposition leaders say. Many analysts agree this could work in favor of the provinces. Morales might have to make concessions where he was once unwilling to budge.

"The referendum is a very powerful statement that the government will not be able to ignore," says Roberto Laserna, a political analyst in Bolivia.

Over the past two years, the autonomy debate has taken on a racial element. Although indigenous populations dot Santa Cruz, it is nowhere near to the extent as in the western highlands. The government has portrayed autonomy leaders as only looking out for the rich, not the nation's majority.

On Sunday night, the central plaza in Santa Cruz was packed with a cross-section of citizens waving green-and-white flags with the word "autonomy" written on them. "We want a better quality of life, and autonomy is the way to get there," says Rosana Bravo, as firecrackers popped overhead. "We are not rich. We just want liberty."

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