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Bolivia’s richest region votes on autonomy drive

Bolivia’s richest region of Santa Cruz voted on Sunday on a plan for greater autonomy from the central government in a referendum seen as a defiant rejection of President Evo Morales’ leftist reforms.

Voting was mainly calm, although clashes broke out in several poorer areas of the tropical region soon after the polls opened as backers of Morales, a former coca farmer, ransacked polling stations and burned ballots in protest. “This is a struggle for liberty. Liberation struggles are never easy,” Percy Fernandez, mayor of the region’s main city, told reporters. Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and a close ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, has branded the referendum illegal and his supporters have vowed to boycott it, meaning a ‘yes’ vote is expected to win. “We’re not going to vote in this referendum because it’s illegal,” Jorge Flores said as ballots burned in a heap behind him. “We’re Bolivians and will not be managed by the rich.”

The referendum would theoretically give Santa Cruz’s conservative leaders more control over taxes, policing and natural resources including fertile farmland and about 10% of Bolivia’s oil and natural gas reserves. Despite Morales’ rejection of the ballot, a resounding ‘yes’ vote could force him to negotiate with his opponents in Santa Cruz and other pro-autonomy regions in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, or set the two sides on a collision course. The growing demands for regional autonomy have exposed a bitter divide between Bolivia’s wealthier lowlands and the poor Andean highlands near the capital La Paz, where thousands of coca growers marched to show support for Morales on Sunday. Similar demonstrations took place elsewhere.

Political tensions have heightened in recent weeks in South America’s poorest country and Bolivia’s armed forces issued a rare statement on Saturday that backed the president and called the referendum a threat to national security.

 
NATURAL GAS

The historically unstable country’s eastern areas are home to vast natural gas reserves, the second-largest in South America and a key supply source for neighboring Brazil and Argentina. Santa Cruz also has rich farmland and its population has grown fast over the past 40 years, with Bolivians from the highlands seeking a better life due to its growing economy. It is now home to a quarter of Bolivia’s some 9 million people. Because a ‘yes’ result is almost certain, political analysts say the result will be measured by how many turn out to vote. They say it will lose legitimacy if turnout is less than 50%. “More people will abstain than are admitting to it now and more people will actually vote ‘no’,” predicted Alvaro Puente, an analyst in Santa Cruz city. Morales sees the referendum as a bid to destabilize his government, engineered by conservative rivals who oppose his efforts to break up large landholdings and empower the poor, indigenous majority. He sought to play down the significance of the referendum in recent days and appeared on national television playing soccer on Sunday.

Political commentators fear any decision by Morales to reject the vote might spark wider, potentially violent protests between his opponents and supporter. Some analysts expect Morales to agree to talks in a bid to bridge the divide between the more indigenous west and the east, where there is a larger European-descended population. (Reuters)