"Stand up cruceños, let's make history!" reads the motto of Santa Cruz, the largest and richest of Bolivia's nine departments. This week, an autonomy referendum in the province could add a bloody chapter to that book.
The referendum in Santa Cruz, a lowland province that borders Brazil, with vast reserves of gas and iron ore, is unprecedented in Bolivian history. If the resolution wins landslide approval this Sunday -- as is likely -- it may encourage autonomy movements in three other departments in Bolivia as the richer eastern lowlands move away from what they see as excessive centralisation in highland La Paz. This would make it ever more difficult for President Evo Morales to govern the country.
Illegal and racist?
Morales claims the vote, which would allow Santa Cruz to choose its own governor, run its own police force and create a separate tax system, is illegal and motivated by racism and greed among wealthy landholders who feel threatened by the indigenous head of state's plans to redistribute land.
In some ways, Morales is right. There are two Bolivias: one is that of poor indigenous highlanders; the other is that of a light-skinned elite descended from Spaniards. The election of a left-wing government in December 2005 threatens the way of life of the eastern Bolivia elite, which is generally right wing, favours a less interventionist state, and would rather not have to share its wealth.
- Morales's first major reform, a sweeping energy nationalisation to bring the country more profits from its natural gas fields, was popular.
- Yet his attempt to revise the constitution to promote land reform and give greater power to indigenous communities, ran into opposition from elite groups, whose views have long been tinged by racist attitudes towards indigenous Bolivians.
- Their rejection may also have been motivated by the discovery of large gas reserves in the country, which sparked controversy over how revenues should be distributed. La Paz argues that these reserves are national assets, and taxes should be used to finance national, as well as local, spending.
Prospects of violence
Both sides have recently ratcheted up the rhetoric. One leader in Santa Cruz has been quoted as saying that a "new republic" will be born on Sunday. Morales has support from the usual suspects: the leftist presidents of Venezuela and Nicaragua -- Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega respectively -- along with Cuban Vice-President Carlos Lage, have said they will refuse to recognise Santa Cruz as an autonomous entity. Lage has warned of a 'Kosovo' in the heart of Latin America.
Yet there are important restrainers to violence. The vision of 'autonomy' is not entirely clear. At one end of the spectrum are those who want full independence for Santa Cruz and other departments. However, only a small militant minority in Santa Cruz advocate secession. Moreover, Santa Cruz in recent years has become increasingly ethnically diverse. Migration from the highlands means that Morales's support in the department is actually relatively solid. Bolivia's neighbours, Brazil and Argentina, would not countenance a break-up of the country, a major provider of gas to the region, which should deter more radical autonomy supporters from seeking outright independence.
The ultimate aim of the referendum may be to reopen negotiations with Morales from a position of strength, especially as another referendum is also planned on a new constitution, which makes its own, vague though less radical, provisions for regional autonomy. Morales has not halted plans for the Santa Cruz vote, partly out of fear of provoking violence but also because the forum for legal challenges is the Constitutional Court, which is no longer functional due to political turmoil and uncertainty. However, the government is unlikely to accept a 'yes' vote on May 4, which means some violence may be inevitable.