A vote for autonomy in Santa Cruz, Bolivia was passed by approximately 82% of voters on Sunday, May 4th. The vote endorses a move by Santa Cruz to, among other things, gain more control of gas reserves in the area and resist the central government’s break up of large land holdings. Clashes during the vote in Santa Cruz left 35 injured. One man died from asphyxiation due to tear gas fired by police forces. The vote and conflict marks a new phase in the polarization of Bolivia, and a new challenge for the region.
However, various aspects of the autonomy vote weaken its legitimacy. The Bolivian Electoral Court, the Organization of American States, the European Union, Bolivian President Evo Morales and other South American leaders have stated that the vote is illegal. The national average for voter abstention in Bolivian elections is 20-22%. In the Santa Cruz referendum on May 4th, the rate of abstention was 39%. This abstention percentage added to the number of “No” votes means that at least 50% of Santa Cruz voters did not support the autonomy statute, according to Bolpress. The organizers of the vote in Santa Cruz hired a private firm to count and collect the votes, and voters reported widespread fraud and intimidation across the department. In some cases, ballot boxes arrived in neighborhoods with the “Yes” ballot already marked. (For an extensive report with interviews and photos on the vote and conflict in Santa Cruz, see “Santa Cruz Divided.”)
The Santa Cruz autonomy movement’s architects and leaders are right wing politicians, wealthy business owners and large landholders. The autonomy statute voted on calls for increased departmental control of land, water and gas. This would potentially block Morales’ plans to break up large land holdings and redistribute that land to small farmers. The application of the autonomy statute would also mean a redirection of gas wealth from the central government to the Santa Cruz government. Such a move would run counter to the new draft of the constitution passed in December of 2007, which states that the Bolivian people are the owners of the nation’s natural resources, and that those resources should be managed under largely state control. This draft constitution is set to be voted on in a referendum sometime this year.
Morales announced a partial nationalization of gas reserves in Bolivia on May 1st of 2006. The subsequent renegotiated contracts have led to $2 billion a year in government revenues, an increase from $180 million in 2005, according to IPS journalist and political analyst Franz Chavez.
This revenue for the Morales administration could be put at risk, particularly if autonomy referendums in the departments of Beni, Pando and Tarija pass in the coming weeks. Tarija is a department producing approximately 80% of Bolivian gas. Autonomy for these four departments is to include the ability to sign new gas exportation contracts with foreign entities. However, Brazil and Argentina, two of the biggest importers of Bolivian gas, continue to support the Morales government and do not officially recognize the autonomy referendums. This would likely cut off pro-autonomy departments from negotiating new gas exportation deals.
In addition to economic powerhouses such as Argentina and Brazil, the leaders of Venezuela and Ecuador have also come out against the autonomy vote in Santa Cruz. Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador commented on the autonomy movement in his weekly radio program: “This is not just Bolivia’s problem, and we aren’t going to allow it. Nobody is going to recognize this illegal referendum. It’s a strategy to destabilize progressive governments in the region.”
The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a coalition of progressive governments in Latin America, made a declaration stating that the countries in ALBA “reject the destabilization plans that aim to attack the peace and unity of Bolivia”. It stated that ALBA nations would not recognize “any juridical figure that aims to break away from the Bolivian national state and violates the territorial integrity of Bolivia”. This support is important for Morales, as it shows he is not alone in the region and has backing from major nations in negotiating with the Santa Cruz autonomy movement.
In the current draft of the Bolivian constitution, passed in the constituent assembly in December 2007, stipulations do exist for various forms of autonomy and decentralization to develop for departments as well as indigenous groups. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said, “We’re not against autonomies, but rather support constitutional, legal autonomies that strengthen the country’s unity. In Bolivia there’s an attempt to use a legitimate and democratic instrument as voting for an anti democratic, anti constitutional objective.”
President Morales and other leaders and analysts in the region have denounced US interference in Bolivian affairs, stating that Washington is supporting the autonomy movement in Santa Cruz through USAID funding and the National Endowment for Democracy. (See “Undermining Bolivia” for more information on this intervention.) Thomas Shannon, the US State Department’s top Latin American diplomat said in an interview with the Madrid newspaper El Pais: “We are committed to the territorial unity of all the countries of the region… At the same time we are in favor of the expression in a democratic manner of the interests of the different groups and sectors.”
Meanwhile, the Morales government is moving ahead with planned changes. On May 1st of this year the government took over the Italian-owned Entel company, the largest telephone company in Bolivia. The government had accused the company of failing to expand their phone network sufficiently. At the same time, Morales announced a $6.3 million deal with Repsol, a Spanish oil company. During a May 1st speech, Morales said “we are consolidating the energy nationalization. The Bolivian state has 50 percent plus one share of the capitalist, or so-called capitalist, companies.”
In spite of the opposition in Santa Cruz, Morales support throughout the country remains strong. A poll conducted in Bolivia on May 5th by Ipsos Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado indicated that Morales has a 54% approval rating, down just 2% from March.
Though the goals of the autonomy movement may not be realized for some time, the May 4th vote increases tensions in an already polarized nation. Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera suggests this conflict is a part of the historic changes that Bolivia has been going through since the election of Morales.
“What‘s interesting is how important the struggle for identity has become — the importance of asking ‘Who are we?‘ to place ourselves in the world,” Linera explained to the Associated Press. “The crisis unites us,” he said. “Today the elite have to think, ‘What do I have in common with my maid?‘”
BENJAMIN DANGL is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia,” (AK Press). He is an editor at UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email bendangl(at)gmail.com