Monday, May 05, 2008

President Evo Morales dismisses autonomy vote in Bolivia's biggest state

DAN KEANE, May 04, 2008

Bolivia's largest and richest state voted amid scattered violence Sunday to seek greater autonomy from the government of leftist President Evo Morales, who dismissed the referendum as a failure.

The eastern lowland state of Santa Cruz, center of Bolivia's conservative opposition, had called the vote in hopes of separating the state's freewheeling capitalism and mixed-blood heritage from Morales' push for a communal state ruled by Indian values.

In the face of local exit polls showing 85 percent of voters favoring the measure, Morales claimed that as many as half the ballots were invalid, quoting media reports.

"The referendum failed completely," he said in a nationally televised address.

But he ended his remarks with an invitation for more talks with autonomy leaders.

"Let's work together tomorrow for a true autonomy," he added. "For the people, and not just certain groups — an autonomy that permits the people to decide their destiny."

Santa Cruz leaders want to keep a bigger slice of the state's key natural gas revenues and to shelter vast soy plantations and cattle ranches from Morales' plan to redistribute land to the poor.

Morales, the country's first indigenous president, argues that he needs a strong central government to spread Santa Cruz's wealth to the rest of Bolivia, South America's poorest country.

Results will not be available for days. But Santa Cruz leaders declared Sunday night that voters embraced a growing tide of decentralization that could cripple Morales' populist agenda.

"This is not the end of the process," said Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas, addressing supporters gathered under the palm trees in the central plaza of the state's namesake capital city. "With your vote, we have begun the most transcendental reform in national memory."

Minor clashes across Santa Cruz state injured at least 25 people during the vote, and relatives of a 70-year-old man said he was killed when police fired tear gas to break up one scuffle. The death could not be confirmed by authorities.

Morales congratulated protesters for trying to block the vote.

"I want to express my respect for the people of Santa Cruz for their resistance against this separatist referendum," Morales said. "The people are wise to defend legality, constitutionality and the struggle for equality between Bolivians."

Three other eastern states — Beni, Pando and Tarija — hold autonomy votes next month.

No one is clear exactly how autonomy would alter Bolivia's heavily centralized government, under which state governors were appointed by the president until 2005. The statutes up for approval Sunday create local powers common in many countries, including a state legislature and police force.

Morales, in an interview with The Associated Press, called the measure illegal, unconstitutional and dictatorial. He particularly objects to ambitious clauses that bear the distinct ring of nationhood: control of the state's land distribution and the right to sign international treaties, among others.

The vote went ahead despite an order to postpone it by Bolivia's top electoral court, and few international observers were present.

A celebratory mood prevailed Sunday in most of the state capital, which is also called Santa Cruz. But residents in the poor Santa Cruz neighborhood of Plan 3000 — a bastion of Morales support populated by Indian immigrants from the poorer western highlands — burned ballot boxes Sunday morning in protest against the vote.

Santa Cruz leaders insist that they have no intention of seceding. Both sides have dismissed concerns by some international observers that the vote would drive a bitterly divided Bolivia into violence.

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