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Bolivia's largest state votes for autonomy

A vote for autonomy in Bolivia's richest state passed overwhelmingly, but opponents claim that absenteeism undermined the mandate  to loosen ties with leftist President Evo Morales' central government.
Image: An autonomy supporter waves a Santa Cruz state flag
A Bolivian man waves a Santa Cruz state flag near a barricade set to block opponents during Sunday's vote on autonomy. Residents of Bolivia's largest state want control of lucrative natural gas revenues. Antonio Suarez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A vote for autonomy in Bolivia's richest state passed overwhelmingly, but opponents claim that absenteeism undermined the mandate of the movement to loosen ties with leftist President Evo Morales' central government.

Whatever the turnout, the politically charged election appears to have boosted the bargaining power of the autonomy leaders. Morales quickly invited state governors for negotiations following the balloting.

Early partial returns, along with exit polls by pro-autonomy news media, showed the Santa Cruz autonomy referendum passing in a landslide. But vote totals and turnout figures were not immediately available Monday.

With little independent monitoring of the vote, both sides had plenty of room to interpret the results in their favor.

Morales said the referendum failed, citing media reports indicating that 39 percent of voters had stayed home. He called for "a true autonomy, for the people, and not just certain groups — an autonomy that permits the people to decide their destiny."

The government-run news service, the Bolivian Information Agency, claimed an abstention rate of 40 to 45 percent, while the main daily newspaper in Santa Cruz, the pro-autonomy El Deber, reported it at 26 percent.

Santa Cruz, a stronghold of conservative anti-Morales opposition, called the referendum in hopes of separating the eastern lowland state's freewheeling capitalism and mixed-blood heritage from Morales' vision of a communal state ruled by Indian values.

The spreading autonomy movement has replaced traditional political parties as Morales' chief opposition: Three other eastern states hold similar autonomy votes next month, and two more are considering such a move.

At stake is natural gas revenue
Santa Cruz leaders want to keep a bigger slice of the state's key natural gas revenues to keep up with its booming population.

Its powerful business class also hopes to shelter vast soy plantations and cattle ranches from Morales' plan to redistribute land to the poor.

Morales, the country's first indigenous president, argues that he needs a strong central government to spread Santa Cruz's wealth to the rest of Bolivia, South America's poorest country.

Santa Cruz residents drove through the streets Sunday night honking and cheering in celebration, and local leaders declared that voters had embraced the autonomy cause.

State Gov. Ruben Costas told supporters gathered under the palm trees in the central plaza of the state's namesake capital city they had "begun the most transcendental reform in national memory."

It is not clear how autonomy would alter Bolivia's heavily centralized government, which until 2005 allowed presidents to name political cronies as governors of Bolivia's nine states.

The statutes up for approval Sunday create local powers common in many countries, including a state legislature and police force. But the more ambitious clauses bear the distinct ring of nationhood: control of the state's land distribution and the right to sign international treaties, among others.

No intent to secede
Santa Cruz leaders insist they have no intention of seceding — a move that would find little support on a continent packed with Morales' leftist allies.

Morales called the measure illegal, unconstitutional and dictatorial, noting that the referendum went ahead despite an order to postpone it by Bolivia's top electoral court.

In his television address, Morales congratulated groups of demonstrators for taking to the streets to block the vote.

Their clashes with autonomy supporters injured at least 25 people across Santa Cruz state.

The conflict was centered in the poor Santa Cruz neighborhood of Plan 3000, a bastion of Morales support populated by Indian immigrants from the poorer western highlands

Relatives of a 70-year-old man said he was killed when police fired tear gas to break up one scuffle. The death could not be confirmed by authorities.