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BOLIVIA
Separatist threats
José Antonio Aruquipa
2/17/2005
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Mesa engulfed by demands for autonomy.

What began as a neighborhood march in Santa Cruz against the government’s decision to raise diesel and gasoline prices ended with a presidential concession for direct election of prefects and a referendum on departmental autonomy that has put Bolivia on the brink of splitting up.

President Carlos Mesa, whose government has been engulfed by a growing wave of demands and weakened by a series of erratic actions, describes Santa Cruz as "the economic locomotive of the country" and since early this year the region has become the focus of policies of Mesa’s "historic transition" government.

On Jan. 28, Mesa signed a decree calling for June elections of prefects and a referendum on autonomy in the nine departments and lowered the price of diesel for the second time in less than two weeks from 3.74 to 3.72 bolivianos (less than US$0.50) per liter.

Mesa on Jan. 19 had already decreed the first reduction in the diesel price from 3.98 to 3.74 bolivianos per liter in a bid to halt a wave of protests against the fuel price increases of between 10 percent and 23 percent that were announced on Dec. 31.

The decision placated a series of "peaceful seizures" of government offices and acts of defiance against the central government authority in Santa Cruz, but provoked harsh criticism of Mesa.

Weak government

Businessmen, analysts, labor leaders and opposition politicians branded the government as "weak" for having bowed to pressures.

Some, like constitutional lawyer and former parliamentarian Benjamín Miguel, considered the call for elections of prefects "legal hypocrisy" that is not contemplated in the Constitution. Article 109 establishes that "the executive branch is in charge in each department, which is administered by a prefect designated by the President of the Republic."

The deputy for the Movement to Socialism (MAS), Gustavo Torrico, observed that the constitution does not permit, nor stipulate, elections for a prefect, an act which neither is regulated in the Electoral Code nor in the Law of Parties, Citizens Groups and Indigenous Groups.

In contrast, Presidency Minister José Galindo, defended the governmental decree arguing that the election of prefects "deepens democracy" and gives more power to citizens.

But the most intense debate arose around the so-called "October agenda of El Alto" and the "January agenda of Santa Cruz."

The "October agenda" was announced by Mesa after assuming the presidency in October 2003. The president defined as tasks of his government the approval of the new Hydrocarbons Law, the calling and celebration of a Constituent Assembly, the trial to lift the political immunity of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-97 and 2002-2003), and a referendum on the policy of export of gas and petroleum, carried out last July.

Regional autonomy

The "January agenda," nevertheless, imposed the step to regional autonomy, which according to politicians of the left seeks to halt the process of the breaking up big landholdings and profit in an "egotistical" manner from the existing oil fields in Santa Cruz.

"What in reality is being sought is that the gas resources belong to the department, passing a small payment to the state and leaving the prefecture to resolve the problems of land," said writer and journalist Andrés Soliz Rada.

Santa Cruz, covering 320,000 km² (123,550 square miles) and a population of around 2 million inhabitants, is the department that generated the highest export income last year. In 2004, Santa Cruz exported soy and hydrocarbons worth approximately $1.2 billion, more than half of the country’s entire export income of $2 billion.

These arguments were stressed by the leadership of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee —promoted by businessmen— which mobilized tens of thousands of citizens in two public meetings to declare its autonomy.

But only a few days after the concession of autonomy some voices of disenchantment arose in the civil leadership, which showed the existence of other deeper problems.

Edwin Fernández, executive secretary of the Departmental Federation of Factory Workers, said that "the leaders of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz and businessmen, the elites have deceived us and manipulated us because labor and economic problems of the workers were never discussed in the meeting."

"As the Civic Committee, we became confused with our demands, something strange happened because we did not hear our own proposals, the economic situation was forgotten and everything was political," added Gabriel Helbing, leader of the Departmental Workers Central of Santa Cruz.

Protection for land owners

In La Paz, Filemón Escobar, a senator and veteran labor leader, denounced that the election for prefects will provide protection to "the 1,024 people that are owners of 24 million hectares (59.5 million acres)" of land in Santa Cruz.

Florencio Peralta, leader of campesinos de Potosí, said the civic leaders of Santa Cruz were not looking for autonomy of the eastern region but instead aimed to avoid the celebration of the Constituent Assembly in order that a second agrarian reform could not be consolidated.

Deputy Evo Morales, leader of MAS, said "the elite oligarchy of Santa Cruz, with financing from the United States, succeeded in dividing Bolivians and confuse the people of Santa Cruz with the demand for autonomy to avoid the trial of Sánchez de Lozada, the approval of Hydrocarbons Law and the celebration of the Constituent Assembly.

"It is not a matter of consolidating autonomy, which for sure should be debated in the constituent assembly, but to protect Sánchez de Lozada and protect interests such as land and hydrocarbons ownership," he added.


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