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BOLIVIA: Referendum Gives Major Boost to Autonomy Movement

Franz Chávez

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, May 5 2008 (IPS) - The overwhelming vote in favour of autonomy in Bolivia’s richest province has strengthened the challenge to the reforms being ushered in by the government of Evo Morales.

Exit polls indicate that 85 percent of voters in the eastern province of Santa Cruz backed the autonomy statute in Sunday’s election, which was declared illegal by the national government and the electoral authorities.

But the Morales administration and its supporters also claimed a victory, based on the high abstention rate added to the “no” votes and the spoiled ballots, which totalled 49 percent according to their calculations.

Supporters of the government had called for a boycott of the referendum, to weaken its legitimacy.

Election day was marked by violent clashes between government supporters opposed to the autonomy statute – mainly indigenous migrants from Bolivia’s impoverished western highlands provinces – and members of the rightwing Santa Cruz Youth Union.

The day after the referendum, the highly polarised country is caught up in uncertainty as to what will happen next.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the much wealthier eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product. The population of eastern Bolivia tends to be of more European (Spanish) than indigenous descent.

The autonomy movement is spearheaded by the rightwing business and political elites who governed Bolivia for decades.

The aim of the leftwing Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, is to distribute the revenues from the eastern provinces’ natural gas reserves and other sources of wealth more evenly, in order to improve the living conditions of the country’s indigenous people, most of whom live in appalling poverty.

Analysts say that underlying the autonomy statute in Santa Cruz and similar referendums planned in other lowlands provinces is the question of control and use of natural resources like natural gas, farmland, iron ore, water and forests.

The autonomy statute approved in Sunday’s election in Santa Cruz would give the province the right to elect its own legislature, create a separate police force, and negotiate its own contracts with foreign oil companies.

It would also block the government’s agrarian reform efforts aimed at curbing the heavy concentration of land ownership and distributing idle land to landless indigenous peasants from Santa Cruz and other provinces.

On Monday, Santa Cruz Governor Rubén Costas announced the start of “wide-reaching structural reforms.”

“In much less time than you imagine, Bolivia will be autonomous and will end up with a new movement for a new republic,” the governor of the natural gas-rich province of Tarija, Mario Cossío of the opposition Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), told IPS.

The eastern and southeastern provinces of Beni, Pando and Tarija are planning to hold their own autonomy referendums, on Jun. 1 in the first two cases and on Jun. 22 in the latter.

Earlier referendums held in those four provinces in July 2006 approved draft autonomy statutes and gave the provincial delegates to the constituent assembly a mandate to include autonomy articles in the new constitution.

But the proposal for other categories of autonomy – regional, indigenous, and municipal – set forth by the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party’s majority in the constituent assembly led to a break between the eastern autonomy movements and the national government.

“MASismo has failed,” said the conservative Costas. “We have set out on a road towards a new republic and modern state that will be forged in the four autonomous provinces, until this becomes the most decentralised country in Latin America.”

Strengthened by the victory of the pro-autonomy vote in the referendum, Costas spoke of reaching “agreements” with the national government.

Morales, meanwhile, called for further talks with the pro-autonomy leaders. “Let’s work together tomorrow for true autonomy; for the people, and not just certain groups – an autonomy that permits the people to decide their destiny,” said the president.

He urged the opposition leaders to hold talks with his administration under the terms of the draft constitution, which is to be approved or rejected by voters in a referendum, but is flatly opposed by the governments of the eastern provinces.

Its differences with a political current that is led by the economic elites could end up isolating a government that fails to overcome the polarisation, Rubén Ardaya, planning secretary for the Tarija provincial government, told IPS.

He said provincial autonomy is an intermediate step towards a federal state, and warned that the government’s resistance to the process could prompt the movement to take a leap ahead, towards outright federalism. “The conditions for that are not currently in place, but (the government) could force us to take that step,” he added.

For now, national unity will be built on the basis of the different levels of economic potential of each province, with the central government playing a role as a regulator and guide, said Ardaya, who was a former deputy minister in the rightwing government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997; 2002-2003).

The leftist mayor of the southern city of Potosí, René Joaquino said a new political scenario was taking shape in the country, and predicted a repeat of the triumph of the autonomy vote in other provinces.

Joaquino suggests building a country on the basis of regional governments, in a harmonious relationship with the central administration, with local leaders basing their power on popular support.

The rightwing governor of the province of Pando, Leopoldo Fernández, urged the government to engage in dialogue, to design “a new model for the Bolivian state,” as he told IPS.

Rejecting the democratic and cultural changes proposed by Morales, who wants to give indigenous people greater participation in decision-making, to overcome centuries of discrimination, Fernández called for “a true social pact,” in order to reconcile the two different political visions.

Former Santa Cruz governor Carlos Hugo Molina (2003-2007) commented after the referendum that Bolivia is in the midst of “a process of building federalism” that represents a challenge to the new constitution being drafted by the constituent assembly.

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