- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Leaders of an autonomy drive in Bolivia’s largest province Friday won concessions from President Carlos Mesa that clear the way for them to eventually choose their own provincial leaders.

The agreement came after weeks of street protests in Santa Cruz, the country’s largest city, where business and civic leaders led calls for greater autonomy in anger over government-imposed price increases.

Tens of thousands of Santa Cruz residents, many waving the green-and-white provincial flag and wearing T-shirts reading “Autonomy and Freedom,” gathered in the streets to show support for the movement.

Under an accord reached through days of tense talks, Mr. Mesa agreed to allow Santa Cruz residents to elect their own local leaders and hold a national referendum that could extend greater autonomy to other provinces, government officials said.

The president currently names provincial governors.

The autonomy drive presented Mr. Mesa with one of the biggest challenges of his presidency. He has held a shaky grip on power since assuming office 15 months ago after a popular revolt led by Indian and student groups forced out his predecessor.

“This is part of a peaceful revolution,” Ruben Costas, president of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee leading the autonomy drive, told some 60,000 demonstrators.

“This will give a voice to the country’s most productive region, which it seems has been ignored” by the government.

The autonomy push in Santa Cruz highlights a deep divide in South America’s poorest country, already plagued by social tensions between an Indian majority gaining political power in La Paz and the traditional white and mixed-race business elite.

Mr. Mesa has faced increasing criticism from the country’s business leaders over his handling of the economy. Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s commercial capital, is home to some of the country’s most prominent oil, sugar and soybean companies.

Indigenous and leftist groups have kept up pressure on Mr. Mesa, repeatedly demonstrating in recent months to demand social and economic reforms, including calls to nationalize the nation’s mostly foreign-run utility and gas companies.

Business leaders in Santa Cruz say they generate nearly a third of the country’s gross domestic product, along with a large portion of Bolivia’s tax revenue, insisting they pay out more than they receive from the central government.

The region’s governor and other officials are now appointed by La Paz, a power local officials say they want as part of greater regional control over the finances and government of Santa Cruz.

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