Bolivia's Richest Province Votes for More Autonomy

Residents of the largest state in Bolivia voted Sunday on a measure seeking greater political and economic autonomy from the central government. President Evo Morales said the vote in Santa Cruz, where there was scattered violence during the balloting, was illegitimate.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's a bit early to say a new nation is being born in South America, but there is a battle over wealth and power. In a vote marred by violence, Bolivia's tropical province of Santa Cruz approved a referendum yesterday. And the governor says that referendum will, quote, "forge a new Republic."

Governor RUBEN COSTAS: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: He said this is the beginning of a heroic fight.

The referendum locks Santa Cruz into a battle with the central government of President Evo Morales. It allows Santa Cruz to create its own police force and exercise more control over oil and gas reserves. None of which pleases the central government.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Santa Cruz.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The push for more independence pits the provinces of the wealthier eastern lowlands against the poor western highlands and La Paz, the seat of national government. With the country ever more polarized, residents of Santa Cruz went to vote across this vast eastern province made rich from soy plantations and oil and gas fields.

Ileana Haldean(ph) marked yes on the referendum to wrest power from La Paz because she says Santa Cruz - a bastion of freewheeling free enterprise - isn't getting its share from the government of Evo Morales.

Ms. ILEANA HALDEAN: It's time to give us more freedom because we are available to decide what to do with the money that we generate, because right now we have to be waiting for the government to give us money. And because we're Santa Cruz he's not going to give us anything.

MCCARTHY: But Tanya Agues(ph) wanted to make clear what her yes vote was not.

Ms. TANYA AGUES: It's not against Evo Morales. This is a thing against the centralism that has been rolling the country for years - ruling the country for years.

MCCARTHY: It is a complaint stretching back generations, but for supporters of Evo Morales it feels like a personal body blow. His national project includes, among other things, nationalizing the oil and gas resources in the name of all Bolivians.

Santa Cruz leaders want to be able to negotiate their own royalty agreements with energy companies in this gas rich province. The disagreement took a dangerous turn yesterday.

(Soundbite of shouting)

MCCARTHY: Two hour outside Santa Cruz, anti-autonomy forces burned dozens of ballot boxes. Back in the city, a 70-year-old man was killed in one of the sporadic skirmishes that drew both sides to the streets wielding weapons.

Efforts, meanwhile, by Morales forces to dissuade voters from going to the polls paid off. Preliminary returns showed nearly 40 percent of the electorate did not vote. Small businessman Rufina Mendoza(ph) abstained. He says he's all for autonomy but not one that he says has been engineered by the ruling elite of Santa Cruz.

Mr. RUFINA MENDOZA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: This autonomy being proposed is all in the personal interests of capitalists, he says. It favors transnational companies that want to pull Bolivia apart. That is not the autonomy we want, Mendoza says. We want autonomy that's good for everyone.

The autonomy statute that voters endorsed is so sweeping that it includes the power to negotiate international agreements. Branko Marinkovic, president of the Comite Civico, the backbone of the autonomy campaign, brushed off any suggest that Santa Cruz is establishing a parallel state to the central government.

Mr. BRANKO MARINKOVIC (Comite Civico): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: No, please, was his response.

But the referendum result does set a worrisome precedent for Evo Morales. Other provinces are chafing under the central government's control, and at least three of them have pledged to hold their own referendum on autonomy.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

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