Bolivian states vote for autonomy
June 3, 2008 - Washington Times


Bolivians in two opposition-controlled states voted overwhelmingly Sunday for autonomy measures that aim to shield the country's remote Amazon basin from President Evo Morales' leftist reforms.

The Amazonian states of Beni and Pando passed autonomy measures by more than 80 percent of the vote, according to preliminary vote counts released Sunday evening.

Morales' quest to empower Bolivia's long-oppressed Indian majority has alienated a more mixed-race population in the eastern lowlands and fueled old grudges here against the national government centered in La Paz.

Government officials had encouraged Morales' supporters to abstain from voting, and pro-Morales groups in the small Pando town of Filadelfia burned voting urns to protest the referendum.

Scattered clashes between autonomy backers and pro-Morales groups in the Beni state capital of Trinidad left about eight people injured, according to local media reports.

State leaders hailed the measure as the latest step in a growing decentralization push that opposition groups hope will provide a counterbalance to Morales' populist government.

"We ask the country and the world to respect our sovereign will to be autonomous," said Beni Gov. Ernesto Suarez at victory rally in Trinidad, as autonomy supporters waved the green state flag and danced through the streets in traditional feathered head dresses.

"Tomorrow we can take our own way, our own direction, our own development," he said.

Rural Beni and Pando states _ among Bolivia's poorest _ have found common cause in the autonomy movement with their wealthier neighbor Santa Cruz state _ a hotbed of anti-Morales sentiment where 86 percent of voters opted for autonomy earlier this month.

Morales has dismissed all three referendums as illegal "surveys" by conservative opposition groups hoping to cripple his government.

"It's not a problem of autonomy," Morales said Sunday. "The problem is that they can't accept that an Indian from the countryside is their president."

Nevertheless, the president made a rare trip Friday to Pando's capital of Cobija to deliver a new fleet of ambulances and announced a US$6 million infrastructure project.

Morales won a landslide election in 2005 to become Bolivia's first indigenous president largely by drawing a long ignored poor Indian majority into the democratic process, a generation after the country's last dictatorship.

But with Bolivia now bitterly divided over his policies, anti-Morales opposition has coalesced around a a rival version of democracy based on states' rights.

A fourth state, Tarija, will likely join the cause in a referendum on June 22.

Statutes passed in Santa Cruz and on the ballot in Beni and Pando would protect huge cattle ranches and soy plantations from expropriation under Morales' land reform plan.