Monday, May 5, 2008

Bolivian province votes for autonomy in violence-marred poll

Click here: Bolivian province votes for autonomy in violence-marred poll - Yahoo! News

Bolivian province votes for autonomy in violence-marred poll
by Marc Burleigh Sun May 4, 6:48 PM ET

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (AFP) - Voters in Bolivia's richest province of Santa Cruz voted overwhelmingly to adopt autonomy measures in defiance of socialist President Evo Morales, who has declared the move invalid.

Exit polls conducted by local television stations showed more than 85 percent of the 930,000-strong electorate approved the referendum after a day of balloting marked by sporadic clashes that injured at least 20 people.

The proposed measures aim to give opposition-run Santa Cruz its own regional government and security force, and greater control over revenues from massive natural gas fields located in the eastern province that are vital to the economy of Bolivia, South America's poorest nation. But Morales has already said the vote was unconstitutional and would be ignored.

His military chiefs also warned that they viewed the autonomy move as a threat to Bolivia's territorial integrity.

Santa Cruz held the referendum in reaction to strongarm efforts by Morales to rewrite the constitution to improve the lot of the largely impoverished ethnic Aymara and Quechua indigenous populations who live in the western Andean mountains.

Morales, a hardline socialist allied to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is intent on giving the indigenous majority more of the nation's wealth and land.

That goal is anathema in Santa Cruz, the country's economic motor and home to the country's biggest landowners and business tycoons.

Three other neighboring provinces are to hold their own autonomy votes next month, and two others may follow suit.

Racial discrimination has reared its head in the confrontation. Most of the eastern lowland inhabitants of are of European or mixed descent, and they resent what they see as the "indigenization" of their country's economy.

The violent episodes Sunday gave rise to fears that wider unrest may follow.

Medical sources said one of the casualties was hurt when dynamite went off.

Most of the others suffered bruising from blows, rocks and bats. One elderly man was reported to have died, possibly of asphyxiation or a heart attack, when police used tear gas to clear a crowd.

In a poor southern neighborhood of the city of Santa Cruz, the main city in the province, a stone-throwing mob attacked polling station workers, AFP photographers saw.

After police deployed to calm the situation, a group of around 200 people gathered to burn seized ballot papers to cries of "Fraud, fraud".

"Down with the rich, who don't want to share," yelled Gregorio Labra, a 40-year-old bus driver wielding a heavy stick.

An angry indigenous mob also destroyed an outdoor balloting post in the town of Santa Juliana, 140 kilometers (90 miles) to the north, local television showed.

In the center of Santa Cruz itself, a crowd of people supporting the referendum menacingly surrounded a car carrying a senior agriculture ministry official, preventing it from driving off.

Regional election officials issued a statement accusing the official of encouraging attack against a press center where Bolivian and foreign journalists were covering the vote.

While it remained uncertain what powers the adoption of the autonomy statutes would actually confer, organizers of the referendum -- including opposition governor Ruben Costas -- said they believed they would now have a stronger position to bargain with the government over land reform and gas revenues.

In Washington, the Organization of American States late Friday expressed support for Bolivia's territorial integrity ahead of the autonomy referendum.

In a resolution, the OAS Permanent Council rejected "any attempts to disrupt" Bolivia's constitutional order and its territorial integrity.

Click here: Bolivian province votes for autonomy in violence-marred poll - Yahoo! News;_ylt=AgDBrqrJ3EivJXOw9jQkG Y8UewgF

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