In all-out power struggle, Bolivia to hold risky referendum

By Jan-Uwe Ronneburger, DPA,

La Paz/Buenos Aires : In Bolivia there is an all-out power struggle between the poor, indigenous majority and the wealthier people of European origin in the country’s east.

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That struggle is to come to a head Sunday when the one million residents of the province of Santa Cruz de la Sierra go to the polls in a referendum seeking greater autonomy for the wealthy region. Observers are not prepared to rule out a break-up of the Andean country of nine million people, squeezed between Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru, over the issue.

The latest opinion polls estimated that more than 70 percent of the voters in Santa Cruz would cast a ballot favouring more independence, even though the electoral authorities have deemed the referendum illegal, and have warned they will neither monitor nor acknowledge its results.

The issue over control of profits from the area’s rich natural resources has also been key in the ongoing nationalization of the country’s energy resources.

Bolivian President Evo Morales began nationalizing the country’s energy resources two years ago to fund government programmes in support of the Indio majority, who live mostly in the resource-poor highlands in the western part of the country.

Ahead of the vote, the government Thursday announced it had taken over four international energy companies and would also take control of a telecommunications firm.

Sunday’s referendum will not be legally binding and the country’s constitution does not foresee granting more autonomy.

In this context, observers in La Paz, the seat of the Bolivian government, have not rule out potential violence on voting day. Tnsion has been growing since Morales, a leftist former coca growers’ leader, was elected in late 2005, becoming the country’s first indigenous president.

Morales’ declared that his aim was to grant the country’s indigenous majority – discriminated against for centuries – more rights and access to education and welfare. It earned the Bolivian leader applause from left-leaning governments across Latin America, particularly from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The white population of European origin in the protesting regions, however, is clinging to its supremacy with all its might.

“We are sick and tired of a centralism where they do as they please. They will not stop the May 4 referendum whatever desperate actions the government undertakes to avoid it,” Santa Cruz provincial leader Ruben Costas said.

In no uncertain terms, Costas threatened to create “a second republic”.

Morales needs power and abundant funds in order to improve the lot of indigenous people. The Indio majority lives mostly on the highlands in the western part of the country, where the annual gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is even lower than that of Haiti – the poorest country in the Americas.

In wealthy Santa Cruz, on the other hand, the annual GDP per capita is three times higher. Some 85 percent of the country’s known resources, particularly natural gas, are found there and in fellow- protesting province Tarija.

Beni, where there is also a movement for more autonomy, is the most important producer of beef in Bolivia and exports much of its production. Of the provinces in conflict with Morales, only Pando is poor.

Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua have expressed their support for the Bolivian central government’s position.

“Bolivia lies just before the explosion,” Chavez warned of the provinces’ efforts for more autonomy.

The outspoken Venezuelan president added more fuel to the fire.

“Bolivia will teach fascists a lesson,” said Chavez.

Perhaps Bolivia – given its history of internal struggle and ethnic discrimination – could do more with a more conciliatory discourse. Hwever, Morales is determined to have a new constitution passed that would give more power to the central government at the expense of the provinces.

The rich provinces are following a strategy of frontal opposition against the proposals of the president’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). Morales’ supporters, in turn, blocked opposition legislators’ access to the Congress building while MAS passed the proposal.

The president seems determined to have his way whatever the cost, observers noted.

But the cost may indeed be too great for the small nation with other referendums seeking greater provincial autonomy planned for June 1 (in Beni and Pando) and June 22 (in Tarija).