Leaders Warn of Autonomy Attempts in Venezuela, Ecuador

Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador
warned of possible "contagion" in their countries by the autonomy
movement in the eastern Bolivian province of Santa Cruz.

By Humberto Marquez - IPS
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(IPS)
- Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador
warned of possible "contagion" in their countries by the autonomy
movement in the eastern Bolivian province of Santa Cruz.

"The
central plan by the CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) and its
lackeys in Venezuela is to take control of regional governments to
carry out illegal referendums like the one held (Sunday in favour of
autonomy) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. But we will defeat that plan!" said
Chávez.

He was referring to regional and local elections to be
held in November in 23 states and 335 towns in Venezuela, which
according to pollsters could bring advances for the opposition, which
only holds two regional governments and a handful of municipalities.

On
a map of Venezuela, Chávez pointed to half a dozen states in the west
and southwest, along the border with Colombia, which he called
Venezuela’s "half-moon" – an allusion to Bolivia’s eastern "half-moon"
region, made up of the provinces of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija,
where pro-autonomy rightwing political and business sectors opposed to
the government of indigenous President Evo Morales hold power.

"Don't
let yourselves be fooled," Correa said for his part, on his weekly
radio programme. "What is happening in Bolivia is not an isolated
development. It has the support of foreign countries that want to
destabilise the region, and of the separatist elites from Guayaquil and
Guayas (in Ecuador), and from Zulia in Venezuela."

Correa
pointed out that an International Confederation for Regional Freedom
and Autonomy (CONFILAR) was created in 2006 at a conference in the
southwestern Ecuadorean city of Guayaquil, which was attended by
pro-autonomy leaders from the province of Guayas (of which Guayaquil is
the capital), the Venezuelan state of Zulia and the Bolivian province
of Santa Cruz, as well as advocates of free enterprise from Guatemala
and Peru.

Bolivian Ambassador to Ecuador Javier Zárate said
opposition groups are coordinating autonomy referendums in several
countries in the region. "We cannot believe or understand how there can
be sectors or regions that want dismemberment, separation or
disintegration at a time when Latin America and the world are seeking
integration," he said.

But Carlos Romero, a professor of
graduate studies in international affairs at Venezuela’s Central
University, told IPS that "it is unfair to compare processes like the
one Bolivia is experiencing to the situation in Venezuela or Ecuador."

Bolivia
"has faced regional unity problems since it was founded by the
independence hero (Simón Bolívar, 1783-1830), while in Venezuela
democracy and unity are strong and the opposition respects the rule of
law," said Romero.

The oil and cattle-rich state of Zulia, on
Venezuela’s northwestern border with Colombia, was the country’s
richest state in the 20th century, and stands out from the rest of the
country because of its many distinct cultural expressions.

"We
do not want a half-moon; we want a full moon, Venezuela as a whole, in
order to take it down the route of progress and development," stated
Zulia’s conservative Governor Manuel Rosales, who lost the 2006
presidential elections to Chávez by 61 to 38 percent.

In
Ecuador, Carlos Baquerizo, president of the Civic Council that
represents economic and political sectors in Guayas, said with respect
to a possible referendum that he does not believe that a new one will
be held, "because a decision here was already reached, and it must be
respected."

He was talking about a vote on the matter held in
2000 in Guayaquil, considered a stronghold of the rightwing opposition
to the left-leaning Correa.

Last January, thousands of people
took to the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s economic capital, to demand
that the 2000 referendum be included in the new constitution being
drafted by the constituent assembly, in which pro-Correa delegates hold
a majority.

"A decision was already reached in favour of
regional autonomy in the framework of development accompanied by
national unity. What Guayaquil wants has nothing to do with
independence" from the rest of the country, said Baquerizo.

In
Peru, journalist César Hildebrandt, a columnist with the La Primera
newspaper, criticised conservative sectors that support the "break-up"
of Bolivia while criticising talk of federalism in the southern
Peruvian province of Puno, on the Bolivian border.

Hildebrandt
warned that "the lesson of this dismemberment" is for Chávez to be
careful in the case of "his rich Zulia," for Brazilian President Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva to watch out, in the case of the state of Rio
Grande do Sul, whose economic importance is growing and where the
population is mainly of European descent, and for Correa to be on the
alert with regard to the "rebellious and proudly coastal" Guayas.

Like
other presidents in the region, Correa criticised Sunday’s autonomy
referendum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s richest province, where voters
expressed themselves overwhelmingly in favour of greater regional
independence.

He referred to the vote as a "separatist
attempt" by regional authorities who "represent the interests of
economic elites, of whites who have never felt themselves to be part of
the Bolivian people."

He also referred to "international
meddling" and foreign financing "of these groups, to create problems
for progressive governments, and to bring about the balkanisation of
Latin America."

Chávez, meanwhile, said "there is a strong
attempt by the U.S. empire and the Bolivian oligarchy to undermine the
state of law and territorial integrity in that country. It is an
attempt at Kosovisation (a reference to Kosovo’s declaration of
independence) and a blow to all of the peoples of South America."

The
governments of Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, which have acted as a
group of "friends" of Bolivia to try to mediate in the crisis since the
Santa Cruz referendum, issued a communiqué calling for "a broad, frank
dialogue" among the main political actors in Bolivia, "with a view to
the preservation of Bolivia’s democratic institutions and territorial
integrity" and based on "an open, substantive agenda, without
preconditions, and the establishment of a climate of peace, serenity
and tolerance."

At a meeting Monday in Caracas preparatory to
the May 23 summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) --
formerly the South American Community of Nations -- to take place in
the Brazilian capital, the representatives of Bolivia and Venezuela
said the new regional integration scheme "will be a cure against
divisive and segregationist attempts" in the area.

In
Venezuela, the state-run media, as well as the regional public TV
network Telesur, provided heavy news coverage of the Santa Cruz
referendum, which was portrayed as illegal, unconstitutional and
destabilising.

Chávez’s right-hand man in the United Socialist
Party of Venezuela (PSUV), political scientist Alberto Muller, who is a
retired general, also said that "in Venezuela there is a plan similar
to Bolivia’s."

Muller said the plan to push for autonomy for
several regions, "with U.S. support…is promoted by the Venezuelan
opposition, and would be carried out if the opposition won a few
regional governments."