- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — A referendum on regional autonomy to be held Sunday threatens to divide the country, between those who want a united Bolivia and those who demand local control.

Leftist President Evo Morales has urged his supporters to reject departmental self-rule, which is expected to be approved in the eastern lowlands.

Shouting “autonomia” and waving green-and-white “Camba” flags, 500,000 people filled the center of Santa Cruz on Wednesday to demand local control over taxes, land and natural resources, which the government seeks to nationalize in Bolivia’s wealthiest region. Eastern Cambas are a mixed race of Caucasian and indigenous lowland Guaranis, who harbor historical animosities toward the Andean races.

Mr. Morales’ ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), which draws its base from the Andean highlands, is concerned that Camba business and landowning interests are taking the first steps toward secession.

“In Santa Cruz, we have our own vision of how Bolivia should be transformed,” said Miguel Angel Sandoval, a delegate of the small but influential Camba Nation party. He proposes that the “right of secession” be included in a new constitution “as it was in Yugoslavia.”

The latest polls show that 75 percent of people in the eastern lowlands of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando are likely to vote for autonomy.

In the capital, La Paz, Mr. Morales addressed a gathering of peasant organizations. They unanimously backed a “no” vote.

“We are not supporting an autonomy for the corrupt, for the oligarchies of Santa Cruz,” Mr. Morales told his supporters.

Analysts predict that the “no” campaign will lead to the rejection of regional rule in the western high plains of La Paz, Oruro and Potosi, where Mr. Morales enjoys approval ratings of 80 percent and is backed by the majority Quechua and Aymara Indians.

Santa Cruz civic leaders speaking at the Wednesday rally were careful to say that they stood for an “inclusive” autonomy. But a deputy for the right-wing Podemos party, Pablo Klinsky, said recently that passports should be required for outsiders coming to Santa Cruz.

“We are not going to be overrun,” said a young student covered in Camba green-and-white paint, referring to Andean Indians by a derogatory term.

“Santa Cruz is being manipulated,” said Juan Carlos Yuli, a MAS regional leader. He said local economic interests are turning just demands for local government into a movement based on racial and sectarian hatred.

Mr. Morales agreed to regional referendums in March when eastern leaders threatened to revolt and sabotage his plans to hold a constituent assembly to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution.

Delegates to a constitutional convention scheduled for the summer are being elected Sunday. MAS is expected to win a majority, but it may fall short of the two-thirds needed to pass the radical constitution Mr. Morales wants to “re-establish” Bolivia.

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