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Page last updated at 06:39 GMT, Monday, 5 May 2008 07:39 UK

Bolivia vote shows depth of divisions

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, Santa Cruz

Pro-autonomy supporters in Bolivia's eastern department of Santa Cruz have turned the capital city's main square into a sea of green and white flags - the colours of the region.

Pro-autonomy supporters in Santa Cruz - 4/5/2008
Autonomy supporters want more control over Santa Cruz's resources

The celebrants have ignored the allegations of fraud made by supporters of Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales.

It is a defining moment for an increasingly powerful civic and business movement and a skilled political opposition which united in this resource-rich province to challenge Mr Morales.

Before thousands of exultant "crucenos" - as the people from Santa Cruz are called - Ruben Costas, the now self-declared governor of Santa Cruz, claimed that the victory meant, "initiating the path towards a new republic".

Supporters of more autonomy for the region want to loosen what they term the "totalitarian and hegemonic centralism" of the central government in La Paz.

"I am happy because we are now free to manage ourselves, with Santa Cruz's own resources," autonomy supporter Charito Cardenas told the BBC as she waved her "autonomy" flag.

"Autonomy represents freedom, independence, living tranquil, living in peace - the freedom for Santa Cruz and for the whole of Bolivia which is what we want", she said.

But not all areas of Santa Cruz were celebrating as effusively.

'Oligarchs'

In a country where ideological confrontation is commonplace, violent clashes between pro-Morales and pro-autonomy supporters in some of Mr Morales' strongholds left one dead and more than 20 injured.

Some people were prevented from voting, ballot boxes were burnt and roads were blocked.

But in the end, Bolivia's wealthiest region passed a statute of autonomy that would grant the department more local decision-making and more control over land, taxes and gas and oil revenues.

Map

For some analysts, the autonomy movement was instigated by the region's wealthy elite, with a good deal of economic self-interest and racism as fuel.

That is something some residents of Santa Cruz also feel.

"Why did these oligarchs that are pushing for autonomy want our vote now?" asks Marina, a woman of the Aymara indigenous group who has been living in Plan 3000, a humble neighbourhood of mud roads on the edge of Santa Cruz city, for the past 45 years.

"They always hated us, the indigenous people, they still do and they will always will. We suffer because of them.

"The autonomy they are proposing is nothing more than a trick to keep strangling the poor," she added.

On the floor, a pamphlet from the pro-Morales supporters asking the people not to vote shows a swastika and calls the opposition a (Masonic) "lodge".

'Kosovo-style plan'

But regardless of the origin, the vote in favour of more autonomy has placed the biggest obstacle yet in front of Mr Morales's planned reforms to re-orient Bolivia with a socialist twist, giving a greater share of the land and resources to the country's indigenous majority.

This is something the draft constitution - yet to be approved - is supposed to do.

For Gabriela Montano, the president's delegate in Santa Cruz, "this is not a result in favour or against autonomy, because this process, for various reasons, it is fragmenting the country."

Voters in an autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 4 May 2008
The government says it will ignore the result of the poll

For many, this pits the elite in Santa Cruz, who are of European descent, against Mr Morales' peasants and indigenous supporters, and squeezes his beleaguered attempt to change the course of South America's poorest country.

"I hope the government will hear the call of its people now, and not the call of [Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chavez] and will start choosing its own course and accept this autonomy and decide it's time to sit down and talk", former president and leader of the opposition Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga told the BBC.

For Mr Chavez, who is an unconditional ally of Mr Morales, this autonomy hides a "Kosovo-style plan" to destabilise the government and divide Bolivia.

At least three more departments may follow Santa Cruz with their own autonomy votes.

Conscious that the autonomy debate is proving deeply divisive, Mr Morales has called for dialogue even though he declared the vote to be illegal after knowing the results.

The Organisation of American States and the Catholic Church also called unsuccessfully for dialogue in recent weeks.

"We have always been willing to hold dialogue and we will always push for a national pact," the president of Santa Cruz's Civic Committee, Branko Marinkovic, told the BBC.

"Bolivia will now start to march on a new path called autonomy. It won't be a short one, it might be a rocky one, but it will be the one Bolivia has democratically chosen," he added.

All over the centre of Santa Cruz city that choice is being cheerfully celebrated by the many who wanted autonomy.

Now, both parts agree they should start a dialogue. What comes next has a big question mark.

In the meantime, Santa Cruz is enjoying a long night of celebrations as the rhythmic chant of "autonomy, autonomy" resounds across the city.


SEE ALSO
Morales dismisses autonomy vote
05 May 08 |  Americas
Bolivia poll sparks crisis fears
30 Apr 08 |  Americas
Setback to Bolivian reform plan
08 Mar 08 |  Americas
Bolivia head praises reform plan
16 Dec 07 |  Americas
Battle for Bolivia's heart
08 Sep 07 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Country profile: Bolivia
22 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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