Bolivian province seeks greater autonomy

Across the low-lying plains in this eastern Bolivia city, green and white flags hang from storefronts and drape from cars—symbols of a growing push for greater political autonomy in the country’s most prosperous region.

Handwritten signs near the city’s plaza read “Autonomy now!” Civic and business leaders talk openly of wanting new political rights and economic benefits. The issue is on everyone’s lips in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city and economic powerhouse.

Over the past two weeks, angry street protests set off by government-ordered gas hikes have revived an old demand: loosening the region’s ties to La Paz, the seat of Bolivia’s government.

The rift between this resource-rich region and the government in La Paz highlights the ailments plaguing South America’s poorest country, one riven by simmering social tensions between an Indian majority gaining political power in La Paz and its traditional white and mixed-race ruling elite in Santa Cruz.

“We feel like we have no input,” said Juan Ortiz, a Santa Cruz small business owner. “And we feel like we should have some say, given what we represent for Bolivia.”

The push for greater self-governance presents President Carlos Mesa with his most serious challenge since he took power 15 months ago.
Mesa assumed office after his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, resigned following a deadly Indian-led popular revolt triggered by a plan to export the country’s natural gas reserves.

Since then, Mesa has sought to juggle demands from increasingly vocal indigenous groups opposed to free-market economic reforms and business leaders who support them.

Just how much independence the proponents of the move in Santa Cruz are seeking remains unclear.

Business and political leaders in Santa Cruz argue they generate nearly a third of the country’s gross domestic product along with a large portion of Bolivia’s tax revenue. Yet they insist they are paying out more than they receive from the central government.

The region’s governor and other officials are now appointed by La Paz, a power local officials say they want as part of greater regional control over the finances and government of Santa Cruz.

And it appears the push for more autonomy has given impetus to other regions. Leaders in the gas-rich southern part of the country, Tarija, say they too plan a push for increased regional autonomy.

Many people in both regions say they feel disconnected from the Indians who live in the Bolivian highlands who have risen in protest in recent years over the country’s economic policies, gaining increased political power.

Here, residents—known as Crucenos—have long claimed cultural and social differences with the country’s poorer and Indian-dominated western highlands, pointing to the city’s gleaming new buildings and cafe-lined avenues as signs of its economic success.

Only 50 years ago, Santa Cruz was a barren outpost of unpaved streets with a population of about 50 000 people. But discoveries of oil deposits and the development of the region’s fertile farmland produced an economic boom that has seen its population swell to 1,4-million.

Now home to nearly a quarter of the country’s population, Santa Cruz has succeeded in attracting foreign investment at time when it has fallen in the rest of the country. Persistent protests over free-market economic policies have scared off potential investors.

“It seems the government is more concerned with what happens in the western part of the country and less with what happens here,” said Carlos Dabdoub, a former health minister who is leading the Santa Cruz autonomy movement.

Mesa on Tuesday called the autonomy push “unacceptable,” saying it was unconstitutional and urging Santa Cruz leaders to negotiate.

But leaders of a civic group heading the protests in Santa Cruz say they intend to hold a town hall meeting on Friday to determine how they should move forward with plans to establish a provisional autonomous government.

On the streets, some Crucenos expressed concern about the move.

“It seems this all may end up bringing more uncertainty at a time when Bolivia doesn’t need it,” said Juan Sanchez, a bank employee. - Sapa-AP

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