Violence mars autonomy vote in Bolivia

Street clashes broke out in the departmental capital of Santa Cruz and towns in the surrounding countryside May 4 as regional authorities declared victory in the autonomy vote. Dozens were injured, including one protester hit by a dynamite blast in the town of Montero. Protesters burned ballot boxes in the town of Yapacani. At least one death was reported—an elderly man affected by tear gas fired by police as protesters clashed with autonomy supporters in Plan Tres Mil, a sprawling poor district of Santa Cruz city where voters were attacked with clubs.

Today a new Bolivia is born,” Santa Cruz prefect Ruben Costas told thousands of supporters in the city’s main square where people danced soon after exit polls were broadcast. According to pollster Focaliza, 86% voted for the autonomy proposal and 14% against.

“We do not want the creation of another republic,” lawmaker Carlos Pablo Klinsky (PODEMOS), who helped draft the proposal, told the New York Times. “But we do want control over our own destiny and our own resources.” However, in addition to creating a departmental legislature and police force, and claiming control over land tenure policy and greater share of gas revenues, the measure allows the department’s governor to sign international treaties. It also declares Santa Cruz’s population as “mostly mestizo,” or mixed blood, and requires schools to teach that Santa Cruz is a “melting pot of Bolivians”—an obvious attack on indigenous identity.

In a stern warning on the eve of the vote, Gen. Luis Trigo, the head of Bolivia’s armed forces, called the referendum a threat to national security. President Morales called the vote “illegal” and “unconstitutional,” noting that they were not approved by the National Electoral Court, or monitored by the OAS. He also said that more than 50% of Santa Cruz voters had either boycotted the vote or voted “no”. Saying a declaration of autonomy would be “dictatorial,” he warned departmental leaders that using the vote to justify withholding revenues from the central government “would be the worst mistake they could make.”

However, he also called for talks on autonomy with the nation’s nine departmental prefects. “I hope the prefects can hear me and that together we can guarantee the autonomy of the regions,” he said in a televised speech after polls closed.

Silvestre Saisari, a Quechua indigenous leader and a prominent land-rights advocate in Santa Cruz, warned that the autonomy statute could spark declarations of autonomy by indigenous groups in the department. “The white elite want Balkanization on their own terms, but they should be careful what they wish for,” he told the New York Times. “I might die fighting against their views, but not before taking some of them with me.” (NYT, May 5; AP, Reuters, Informador [Guadalajara, Mexico] May 4; AP, May 3)

As Santa Cruz voted, the Aymara militant group Ponchos Rojos rallied outside the presidential palace in La Paz to demand Morales speed the process of granting autnomy to Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. They also pledged to resist Santa Cruz’s unilateral declaration of autonomy—by arms, if necessary. The Ponchos Rojos militia has offered to assume official military status under Morales, but he declined in the face of opposition from the regular armed forces. He is under pressure from conservatives to have the militia disbanded, and has asked the group to refrain from marching in public with its rifles. (AlJazeera video, May 4)

During the constitutional reform assembly late last year, Ponchos Rojos militants held a press conference where they tortured and beheaded two dogs in Omasuyos province (La Paz department) as a threat to the conservatives of the eastern Half Moon region who seek autonomy. “This is how the dogs of the Half Moon will suffer!” they proclaimed as they garroted and beat the dogs. Rifle-wielding supporters cheered the spectacle. The Minister of Government, Alfredo Rada, rejected this kind of support. “Its not the way to defend a democratic process,” he said. (La Razón, La Paz, Nov. 23)

Eugenio Rojas, mayor of nearby Achacachi and a prominent Poncho Rojo, later apologized for the spectacle. (La Razón, April 1) However, after the Santa Cruz vote he told AlJazeera: “We can circle the city, block the roads and even attack from the inside. But the government asked us to lay low. If the Santa Cruz wants to continue defying us, we will have to act.” (AlJazeera, op cit)

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