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Page last updated at 18:26 GMT, Wednesday, 30 April 2008 19:26 UK

Bolivia poll sparks crisis fears

By James Painter
Latin America analyst, BBC News

Bolivia's Santa Cruz department is about to push the country towards the brink of a crisis when it holds a referendum on further autonomy from the central government.

If approved on 4 May, the statutes of autonomy could give the eastern department more control over land and taxes and more local decision-making.

Pro-autonomy for Santa Cruz supporters demonstrate in Santa Cruz city - 28/4/2008
Many people in Santa Cruz oppose the president's planned reforms

The government has declared the referendum illegal as it lacks the authorisation of the National Electoral Court.

When the Organisation of American States' (OAS) secretary for international affairs, Dante Caputo, warned recently of possible violence surrounding the 4 May referendum in Santa Cruz, no-one seemed to disagree.

The government, the opposition, international diplomats and the Catholic Church all said they shared his fears.

Typical was the statement by Bolivia's Catholic bishops, who have been trying unsuccessfully to mediate between the left-wing government of President Evo Morales and at least four of Bolivia's nine departments, who want more autonomy.

They said they were very worried by the "growing distance between the regions, social classes and ethnic groups," and they warned of "unpredictable consequences of pain and death".

History of conflict

But are the fears justified? After all, Bolivia has a long history of weak government and strong civil organisations which put pressure on the state to further their demands.

Bolivian president Evo Morales (file picture March 08)
Mr Morales wants to give more powers to Bolivia's indigenous people

As Rosanna Barragan, a historian and director of the Archive of La Paz, points out: "In Bolivia, we are very accustomed to precipices, but they say we always step back from the brink."

Moreover, for decades, the leaders of gas-rich Santa Cruz - where about 25% of Bolivia's population live - have demanded more control over their resources and greater decision-making powers.

But Ms Barragan says the current conflict is one of the most serious in the country's history.

Several factors have combined to bring Bolivia closer to the brink:

  • The draft constitution put forth by the government threatens the business and land-holding elites of Santa Cruz. Proposals to limit large land holdings and the government policy to promote land reform have provoked strong reactions.
  • There is a heightened ethnic dimension to the conflict. The draft constitution would give significant new powers to Bolivia's indigenous groups, which the last census said made up more than 60% of the population.
  • Other referendums on greater autonomy are to be held in the three other departments (Beni, Pando and Tarija). Two others (Chuquisaca and Cochabamba) are considering doing the same.
  • Since 2005, departments have had their own elected prefects running them. This has given them more political power, particularly for opposition parties.

Confidence broken

The current impasse has been worsened by both sides showing little sign of backing down. This makes it difficult for either side to make concessions without losing face.

Analyst Jorge Lazarte told the BBC that the distance between the two sides "is too great to hope for a solution in the short-term. The confidence to reach an agreement was broken a long time ago".

The latest tension began when the text of a new constitution was approved in a special session of the Constituent Assembly last December, which the opposition says its representatives were prevented from attending.

Map

The referendum in Santa Cruz is likely to be approved by a large majority, although there may be significant abstention.

The prefect of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, has already said he would reverse some government decisions, and in particular the move to divert more revenues from gas exports to finance a new nationwide old age pension.

This could give Santa Cruz more powers to collect its own taxes, govern its own land reform, and create its own police force.

"The statutes of autonomy amount to a virtual state of secession," says John Crabtree, a research associate at the Latin American Centre at Oxford University.

But Mr Crabtree and other analysts agree that outright secession is not on the cards, and only a minority of the people of Santa Cruz would support it. Most politicians want to avoid being accused of breaking up the country.

Moreover, it would be difficult for any of the departments to have full independence without the backing of either Argentina or Brazil, neither of whom would support it.

High stakes

Many observers argue that the main aim of the Santa Cruz elites is not to split up the country, but rather to keep pressure on the government and to ensure the constitution is never passed.

For its part, in recent days the government has kept up the pressure on Santa Cruz by temporarily suspending cooking oil exports and freezing payments from the central government to the department.

Indigenous leaders parade in support of President Evo Morales - 18/4/2008
Bolivia's indigenous peoples largely support President Morales

But for the moment, the doves within the Morales administration seem to be holding sway.

No regional leaders have been arrested and the security forces have not been deployed to impose the will of central government.

That may change if, for example, more extremist elements in Santa Cruz were to take over its gas plants.

History suggests that Bolivians will eventually step back from the brink and reach some sort of compromise.

But as Mr Crabtree says, "the difference this time is that the stakes are much higher and the precipice is steeper".


SEE ALSO
LatAm leaders reject Bolivia bid
24 Apr 08 |  Americas
Setback to Bolivian reform plan
08 Mar 08 |  Americas
Bolivia head praises reform plan
16 Dec 07 |  Americas
In pictures: Bolivia constitution
16 Dec 07 |  In Pictures
Battle for Bolivia's heart
08 Sep 07 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Country profile: Bolivia
22 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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