Sun, May 04, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Bolivia braces for Santa Cruz vote

FIRST OF SEVERALPresident Evo Morales’ efforts to distribute money from gas fields have led the nation’s richest province to hold an autonomy referendum today

AFP , WASHINGTON

A Bolivian miner shouts slogans during a demonstration against today’s referendum in downtown Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on Friday. Santa Cruz has led the rebellion of several wealthier provinces against income redistribution efforts by the Morales administration.

PHOTO : AFP

The Organization of American States (OAS) late on Friday expressed support for Bolivia’s territorial integrity ahead of an autonomy referendum

In a resolution, the OAS Permanent Council rejected “any attempts to disrupt” Bolivia’s constitutional order and its territorial integrity. It also urged all those involved in the political process “to avoid any action that could undermine peace, constitutional order and peaceful coexistence among Bolivians.”

Bolivia is bracing for a weekend vote on autonomy in the province of Santa Cruz that many fear could send the Latin American nation into violent turmoil.

Local authorities in Santa Cruz, which counts as the wealthiest of Bolivia’s nine provinces because of its gas riches, are expected to win overwhelming backing in the referendum.

If it is passed, they plan to implement statutes giving them greater control over the region’s finances and the right to create their own security force.

But leftwing Bolivian President Evo Morales has vowed to ignore such a result, calling it unconstitutional and separatist.

Although he has backed away from an early threat to send in troops, the specter of street violence between his supporters and backers of Santa Cruz autonomy looms large.

On Friday, 5,000 indigenous Indians held a march through Santa Cruz, the main city of the province with the same name, to protest against the regional referendum seeking greater independence from the national government.

Recent polls suggest as much as 70 percent of the province’s 900,000 voters will back the move to autonomy.

OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said members of the organization were “fundamentally preoccupied” with the course of events in Bolivia.

“We want to preserve national unity in the country, its democracy and avoid violence,” Insulza told reporters ahead of the vote of the resolution.

Meanwhile, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca decried what he described as a refusal by Santa Cruz leaders to maintain dialogue with the central government.

“We thought they would listen to appeals by the OAS, the Catholic Church and the international community,” he said. “But that was not the case.”

Morales, the country’s first indigenous president and an admirer of Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez, has embarked on a socialist agenda that has raised hackles in Santa Cruz and other areas with big landowners.

With a defiant tone, he sent police and soldiers this week to Santa Cruz to seize the offices of a telecommunications company, Entel, a subsidiary of Telecom Italia, that he nationalized by decree.

Four energy firms operating in Bolivia were also declared to be under the control of the state.

Today’s referendum is mostly a reaction to Morales’ determined push to revise the constitution to give more power and wealth to the indigenous population.

The measures include limiting the size of land in private hands and distributing more money from Bolivia’s vast gas fields.

Morales’s tactic of railroading through the proposed amendments, and his refusal to negotiate, has fueled much of the resentment that gave rise to the autonomy campaign in Santa Cruz and elsewhere.

Three other neighboring provinces are to hold their own autonomy votes next month, and two others are thinking of following suit.

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