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Tension mounts with regional autonomy vote
Martin Garat
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Santa Cruz goes to the polls to pressure the central government.

The eastern department of Santa Cruz goes to the polls on May 4 to decide on its “autonomy statutes” in a regional referendum. Pro-autonomy sectors are proposing deep separations from the central government, in protest of the new constitution decentralization scheme, written by an assembly dominated by the ruling Movement to Socialism party, or MAS.

“The MAS opposed the autonomies from the beginning. So they don’t have the right to impose their idea of decentralization. The MAS does not know Santa Cruz’s productive system, which is the most successful in the country. Each department has the right to determine for itself what and how much it wants to decentralize, because it is the one that knows its own abilities,” said Dep. Pablo Klinsky, from Santa Cruz, a member of the right-wing opposition Podemos party.

Last December, the “Pre-Autonomy Assembly,” composed of Santa Cruz politicians and civic leaders wrote an autonomy proposal that calls for greater independence from the central government than La Paz wanted.
At the heart of the debate is land reform. The MAS wants to appropriate swathes of land held by large land owners of Santa Cruz and give them to small-scale farmers.

Klinsky defends Santa Cruz’s agricultural model, as the most developed in the country. “This like previous governments managed the land distribution with political criteria, and they’ve done it poorly,” he said. “The officials in charge of the issue don’t know anything about agricultural production and they want to damage Santa Cruz’s economy so we don’t loom over the government.”

Altiplano migrants
Luciano Menchaca is one of the many altiplánicos — residents of Bolivia’s vast, impoverished highland plain — who emigrated to eastern Bolivia, seeking economy prosperity. Menchaca, who lives off of small-scale agriculture and is now a substitute deputy for the MAS, says that the Santa Cruz elite uses the autonomy issue to defend itself before the central government.

The draft autonomy statutes “does not belong to the people of Santa Cruz but the politicians and the large business owners. They want to protect their economic interests and their land. They never asked for autonomy when they governed the country. Now they’re doing it because they can’t stand that an indigenous person like Evo Morales is in the government palace,” said Menchaca, an indigenous Quechua campesino.

He added, though, that he doesn’t oppose the concept of administrative decentralization and that the problem is about “who” is going to manage regional power.

“It would be good to decentralize so that decisions are made closer to us and that we don’t have to travel all the way to La Paz to make certain transactions. But we don’t trust that the people will do it well. They are going to give themselves good salaries, and generous bonuses,” he said.
Even though the referendum lacks constitutional backing and the approval of the National Electoral Court, Klinsky says that it is legitimate.

“The Constitution says that power emanates from the people and their elected authorities,” he said. The department’s governor, an elected official, is one of the most adamant advocates for autonomy. “The results will be valid.”

But the ruling party says that the vote is illegal.
“The plebiscite is unconstitutional. The results have no importance. Those who want autonomy scare the people so they go and vote. When they have strikes and hold rallies, they send youths, armed with clubs to force people to close their businesses and participate in the protests. The business owners and landholders send out their pawns,” Menchaca said.

For political analyst Jimena Costa, the debate over whether the referendum is legal or not is useless now. “The government uses two strategies to achieve its objectives. The first is the formal path, following the rules of democracy. But when that doesn’t work anymore, the government acts in an authoritarian way. Since the government doesn’t respect the rules of the game, the other players don’t either, including the sectors that demand autonomy. What is important now is legitimacy, not legality,” he said.

Opposing processes
Costa, looking at the issue historically, says there are two processes that cross here.

“On one hand is indigenous inclusion. It’s a process dating back before the MAS, but it has become and important part of its discourse. On the other hand is administrative decentralization, which the government opposes because it doesn’t want to give up power. The challenge is how to make sure both processes meet,” she said.

Faced with a possible approval of the autonomy statutes in Santa Cruz, the MAS scheduled the national referendum for the new charter for the same day, May 4. The text was approved late last year. But because of the rampant inflation and the political crisis, the vote has been postponed.

Costa says that both the draft constitution and autonomy statutes need to be renegotiated and revised.

“Both documents are inviable. The MAS’ constitution tries to impose an indigenous and Andean vision in the country. The Santa Cruz statute transfers issues of national interest, such as land, to regional government. I don’t believe that the statute has been written to be applied. The idea is to obtain a strong popular backing at the voting stations to later negotiate decentralization with the government again,” she said.

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