Breakaway Bolivian State Eyes Freedom A day after Bolivians in the wealthy province of Santa Cruz overwhelmingly voted for more autonomy from the central government, the region officially started on the road to statelike independence, says NPR's Julie McCarthy.

Breakaway Bolivian State Eyes Freedom

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

There's a separatist movement brewing in Bolivia. On Sunday, Bolivians in the wealthy province of Santa Cruz overwhelmingly voted for more autonomy from the central government, and the region officially started on the road to state-like independence. Yesterday, provincial leader Ruben Costas was officially named governor of Santa Cruz.

The vote triggered a mix of violence and celebration across the region. Bolivian President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous leader and a committed leftist, is fighting the referendum. He says it's illegal, and he's dismissing it as a separatist plot by wealthy elites. Joining us now on the line is NPR's Julie McCarthy from Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Hi, Julie, thanks for being here.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Hi.

MARTIN: Explain what the tone is there now, Julie. There has been some reports of violence and public demonstrations earlier in the week. Has this died down now?

MCCARTHY: Well, as you often find, the day or 48 hours after elections things tend to be tacked down a little bit. But, you know, this vote on Sunday drew people, huge crowds in states far afield from Santa Cruz. You had something in the order of a gathering in Cochabamba, which is a state right next door that's agitating itself for more autonomy, having street demonstrations against the autonomy movement here so that the crowds stretched for over three miles. It's very vocal, very volatile, burning the governor in effigy there.

You had the same - you had similar scenes in El Alto, which is this huge town above, just above La Paz in the Altiplano. Now, there La Paz - then you get to sort of really see the divide. You know, the Altiplano with its poor majority indigenous population. Here down in the lowlands, these prosperous, very Brazil like - we border Brazil, very fertile farmland, and full of oil, and hydrocarbon industry, and largely a mestizo population.

MARTIN: Let's talk...

MCCARTHY: So, you have a real divide here between the highlands and the lowlands on all kinds of levels. But, principally it's about money.

MARTIN: Let's talk about what the vote is about. I mean, in large part the chants that were going on as part of those demonstrations was about autonomy, which doesn't necessarily mean secession. Correct? What does that mean? What do they want?

MCCARTHY: Well, they'll tell you flat out what it is not. They'll say, look, this is not about secession, and this is not about declaring our independence from the state of Bolivia. You know, when you are in Bolivia, it doesn't matter where you are, the highlands, the lowlands, the south, the north. There is this deep, deep sense about being Bolivian.

So, as much as it might look to us from the outside as though this place is spinning apart, it's splitting apart, the Bolivians themselves find that a very hard thing to imagine. And they do have this manner, Rachel, and this history of sort of walking up to the abyss, peeking into it, being terrified at what they see by the notion of two separate states, or a Bolivia that's split apart, and they walk it back.

What this referendum is all about, this autonomy referendum, would do what you mentioned it would do in your introduction. It would essentially give to Santa Cruz basically all the powers that, say, a state of the United States has, only there's one catch. This isn't a federalist system. The power doesn't flow from the central government on down to states, as it does in the United States.

You have La Paz, and everybody has to do their business with La Paz. And that's where all - that's where all the power accrues, and then it all sort of trickles down from there. For example, there are hotels in La Paz that have special rates for people who must go to La Paz just to get their ID. Everyone around this huge country must go to La Paz to get everything done. It's about centralization, and blowing apart the centralization that's driving a lot of people crazy.

MARTIN: And this was really one of the platforms of Evo Morales' candidacy when he was elected in 2005. He was about more equally distributing resources. We talk about Santa Cruz. This is a region that has high concentration of the country's resources. So, this is - is this a vote against Morales and his platform?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, very interesting you should say that. Yes, he's got a national project, he's got an agenda, and it's about an equitable redistribution of things. The land, the wealth, the hydrocarbon industry that he figures the foreign companies had a lock on. He took it back. He has regained majority control for the state in the name of the Bolivian people, calling it the patrimony of all Bolivians.

Well, lo and behold, Santa Cruz comes along, and as well as, you know, wanting all these things that states have, their own police force, the ability to tax, creating their own judicial system, they say you know what, we're also going to control the hydrocarbon industry in this state, and we're going to manage our land. Well, these are two of the sine qua nons for Evo Morales who declares those absolutely national questions.

You know, the idea of distributing the wealth and the oil from the enormous natural gas revenues here is a bedrock for him to try to create some sort of more equal society, where he does try to empower the more poor, the much more poor majority indigenous people. So, this really railed against his whole national project. They want to seize unto themselves what he says the national government absolutely needs to create a more equitable union.

MARTIN: How much of this is about as some have said, flat out racism? Those racial long-standing economic divides clearly, but those racial divides between the indigenous Bolivians and those of European lineage. Is that real, Julie?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, originally historically the divide here has been between the lowlands of the east, you know, the border of Brazil where I'm at, which are now hugely profitable, and their mestizo population versus the highlands of the Altiplano, with their poor majority indigenous.

And you know, there is an element of race here, no question. There's an element of socio-economics. But you also, you know, you find racist remarks hurled on both sides. You know, you can't swing a cat here in Santa Cruz and not hit somebody who will come up - will somehow cast this whole question of the differences between the highlands and the lowlands as a question of work, as if to say we deserve what we earn.

We don't want to carry the burden of the poor in the highlands. They have their mines. They have their own land. Let them figure it out. And you know, the subtext for a lot of that feeling here among those who are lucky enough to have amassed wealth, is that they want to move on to it, and they want to hold on to the power that they've had historically.

MARTIN: Julie, Morales is saying the vote is illegal and citing low turnouts. We've seen discrepancies about that turnout. Was turnout low?

MCCARTHY: Well, very interesting because it's a very hard case to make that this was an overwhelming victory. Not only do you have great polarity between states in this union, you have great polarity and volatility within this state. About 50 percent of the people voted yes. Nearly 40 percent, according to some statistics, didn't bother to show up, Rachel, which suggests they don't want autonomy here in the version they were offered it.

MARTIN: And lastly, this is not just happening in Santa Cruz, correct? There are other provinces moving to hold similar autonomy votes?

MCCARTHY: Autonomy fever is sizzling here in Bolivia, and there is at least three other states on line to hold their own version of autonomy. Whether or not it will look as dramatic and as radical as Santa Cruz is a question that remains unanswered.

MARTIN: NPR's Julie McCarthy on the line from Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Thank you so much, Julie. We appreciate it.

MCCARTHY: Thank you, Rachel.

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