- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Bolivia is bracing for an upcoming vote for autonomy in the eastern and energy-rich province of Santa Cruz that government officials fear could spark civil war.

At issue is a measure that would create a separate constitution, legislature and security force for the main eastern region of Santa Cruz. Three neighboring provinces are expected to approve similar measures in referenda next month.

To some, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, approval of the Santa Cruz measure in a scheduled referendum Sunday would amount to a de facto declaration of independence from the central government in La Paz.

Local officials, however, call that charge an exaggeration.

“We are only proposing the kind of federal system that exists in the United States,” said Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas.

The plebiscite, which is expected to pass by a wide margin, reflects growing opposition to Mr. Morales’ plans to remake Bolivia into a socialist state by taking control of huge natural gas reserves in the nation’s eastern lowlands.

Mr. Morales also is determined to seize large landholdings and put them under the control of peasant collectives.

A new generation of leftist leaders, wooed by vast oil wealth available to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is creating a larger divide in Latin America.

“Imperialism has created the autonomy movement to split Bolivia,” Mr. Chavez told a political rally last week in Caracas, Venezuela.

“Bolivia is about to explode,” Mr. Chavez also warned during a summit with Mr. Morales.

Also at the meeting in the Venezuelan capital was Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, who read a joint statement accusing the United States of trying to create a “Kosovo” in Bolivia’s hydrocarbon-rich eastern region around Santa Cruz.

Cuba and Venezuela are not alone in warning about a crisis.

A special envoy of the Organization of American States, Dante Caputo, recently abandoned efforts to mediate between Mr. Morales and eastern governors, warning that the conflict was headed toward “violent events.”

Santa Cruz authorities have been campaigning hard for locally drafted legal statutes aimed at protecting private ownership of land and natural resources that are threatened by laws enacted in the Bolivian Congress or imposed by Mr. Morales using executive decree.

Mr. Morales, who took power in early 2006, signed a decree later that year declaring that all natural gas reserves — the continent’s second largest after Venezuela — would be nationalized.

Another pro-autonomy vote surpassed 70 percent in Santa Cruz and the neighboring provinces of Tarija, Beni and Pando during the national plebiscite two years ago.

Attempts to break away from central government control have an ethnic dimension, pitting Bolivians of European descent in the energy-rich east against impoverished Bolivians of Indian descent in La Paz and in central valleys, Mr. Morales’ main support base.

Violent clashes have intensified in the countdown to Santa Cruz’s referendum.

One landowner said he was thrown off his property north of Santa Cruz last week by armed militants who threatened to lynch him.

Some have taken the law into their hands. Ronald Larsen, an American who owns nearly 400,000 acres of property south of Santa Cruz, has organized a vigilante force against efforts to seize his estate, which contains rich gas reserves.

Alejandro Almaraz, a vice minister in Mr. Morales’ government, was forced to abandon attempts to break through road blockades around Mr. Larsen’s estate after 40 people were wounded in a shootout last week.

Mr. Almaraz said afterward that he will return to liberate people on the estate who he says are being held as “slaves.”

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