Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote

Venezuela will not recognize the results of an autonomy referendum, marred by fraud, abstention, and violence in Bolivia’s richest state, Santa Cruz on Sunday, Venezuelan representative to the Organisation of American States (OAS), Jorge Valero assured Sunday night.
Tens of thousands of Bolivians march against Santa Cruz's illegal autonomy referendum in El Alto (ABI)

Caracas, May 5 2008 ( – Venezuela will not recognize the results of an autonomy referendum, marred by fraud, abstention, and violence in Bolivia’s richest state, Santa Cruz on Sunday, Venezuelan representative to the Organisation of American States (OAS), Jorge Valero assured Sunday night.

Speaking to Caracas-based Latin American television station Telesur, Valero said he was confident that the majority of Bolivians, including in Santa Cruz itself, rejected the autonomy statutes “despite the media terrorism which aimed to persuade them of the suicidal policy of dividing their country.”

Autonomy has become a rallying cry for Bolivia’s economic elite, predominantly of European descent and based in the resource-rich eastern lowlands, who oppose plans by President Evo Morales – Bolivia’s first indigenous president – to redistribute land and use the country’s natural resources to benefit the indigenous poor majority.

Three other states in the east – Beni, Pando, and natural gas-rich Tarija are also set to hold similar referendums in the coming month.

Opponents of Morales celebrated in Santa Cruz on Sunday night as unofficial exit polls showed that 85% of voters supported autonomy.

“Today in Santa Cruz we begin a new republic, a new state,” Governor Ruben Costas told thousands of supporters in the city's main square soon after the exit polls were broadcast.

However, Morales classified the referendum, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the National Electoral Court, as a “failure,” pointing out that the no vote combined with abstention equalled more than fifty percent of the eligible voting population of Santa Cruz.

“This day, called a fiesta, this referendum has absolutely failed. It is illegal, unconstitutional. No one can say that it won with more than 80%,” he said.

Morales also slammed the autonomy statutes, which would theoretically give the Santa Cruz governorship many of the powers associated with nation states, including the power to collect taxes, sign international accords, and control immigration, as “secessionist” and as aimed at “dividing the country.”

“Lamentably, it has divided Santa Cruz itself,” he added.

He called on all governors to work with the national government, beginning tomorrow, to establish an authentic autonomy within the parameters of the new constitution.

Likewise, President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Cilia Flores, also described the referendum as a “total failure,” pointing to the high rate of abstention, instances of fraud, and the resistance of popular and indigenous sectors to the ballot.

Although the final results have not been released, the high rate of abstention in various provinces in Santa Cruz such as Camiri (42%), Puerto Suárez (31%), Montero (62%), Portachuelo (19%), San Ignacio de Velasco (17.8 %), Charagua (40%) and Saipina (60%), indicate an overall abstention rate of between 40-45%, according to the Bolivian Information Agency.

This does not take into account the information from the towns of Yapacaní, San Germán, Cuatro Cañadas, San Julián, and San Pedro, among others, which are bastions of Morales’s party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and the social movements the report continued.

According to the president of the Popular Committee of de San Julián and Cuatro Cañadas, Félix Martínez, the abstention rate was 100% in these towns as residents refused to participate in the illegal referendum.

In the poor neighbourhood of Plan Tres Mil, six kilometres south of the city of Santa Cruz, demonstrators opposed to the referendum occupied a polling station in a school early in the morning seizing and burning ballot boxes pre-stuffed with ballot papers marking the "yes" option.

Jaime Choque, president of the local Popular Committee, showed the marked ballot papers and denounced Mario Parada, representative of the Departmental Electoral Court, as responsible for the fraud.

In response the Santa Cruz Youth Union, described by Morales as “shock troops” for the pro-autonomy forces, dressed in white shirts, were transported to the neighbourhood in ambulances where they clashed with the government supporters.

Sixty-eight-year-old Benjamín Ticona died after police fired tear gas to disperse the two groups.

Incidences of violence, intimidation and fraud continued throughout the day and were reported in at least 15 regions, both urban and rural of Santa Cruz.

“They want to divide Bolivia and let the rich control everything,” said Pablo Lima, a textile worker protesting the referendum in the streets of Plan Tres Mil, where many support Morales. “We won't let them divide our country!”

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of workers and campesinos marched in La Paz, El Alto and Cochabamba in support of Morales and for national unity on Sunday.

The Morales government also received strong support from Venezuelans as thousands of activists from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela gathered in Plaza Bolivar in Caracas on Sunday to protest the illegal referendum.

Orlano Pérez Pérez, director general of the Mayoralty of Sucre municipality argued the Bolivian oligarchy and the United States government want to overthrow the democratically elected Morales government.

He compared the situation to the US backed military coup carried out by economic elites in April 2002 which briefly removed Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chavez from power.

“This is why we are holding this event, so the Bolivian people know they are not alone,” he said.
Although Morales has rejected the validity of the ballot, many analysts argue that the vote strengthens the opposition in projected dialogue talks.

Bolivia is South America's poorest country, however its eastern lowlands are home to the region's second-largest natural gas reserves after Venezuela and it is a key supplier of the fuel to Brazil and Argentina.