Monday, June 02, 2008

Illegal Autonomy Referendums Held in Bolivian Departments

Two more Bolivian departments held autonomy referendum votes on Sunday, but with high rates of abstention from a process that has been discredited and ruled illegal by the national government.

The results from Beni indicate that 80.2% voted “YES” while 19.8% voted “NO”. In Pando 81.8% voted for greater departmental autonomy and 18.2% voted against it.

Abstention rates were the highest in Pando, where more than 40% of eligible voters stayed away from the polls. According to various Bolivian press sources, Pando’s abstention numbers could be as high 51% or as low as 41%. The rate of abstention was 34.5% in Beni.

In a scene that has become all too familiar in Bolivia, campesinos and union members who support President Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party, were the victims of violence provoked by pro-autonomy youth groups.

On Sunday, union headquarters in both departments were attacked by members of the Cruceñista Youth Union (UJC) and the Beni Autonomous Youth Union (UJAB).
Thousands of youths descended upon the departments, sent by opposition leaders to “guard” the voting process of the referendum, but their actions were bent upon instigating violence.

Youth wielding sticks, stones, firecrackers, knives and even firearms launched verbal and physical attacks. In the violence, women and journalists were assaulted, a motor cycle was set on fire and at least five people were injured.

Leading up to the referendum votes numerous unions, social organizations, motorbike operators and others have mobilized government supporters to abstain from casting ballots.

Indymedia Bolivia reported voting irregularities including people permitted to vote without requiring documentation, the collection of signatures from farmers telling them that there is no need to go to vote on the referendum and also residents from other departments coming in to vote.

Despite the number of voters who stayed away from the polls, both departmental prefects and their supporters considered the referendum votes overwhelming victories.

Beni and Pando are following the lead of the Santa Cruz, the nation’s wealthiest department and also the stronghold of opposition to the Morales government. Santa Cruz held the first autonomy referendum on May 4 with 85% of those voting demonstrating support for the autonomy measure and 15% against. Thirty-seven percent of the electorate in Santa Cruz abstained from the vote.

On June 22, Tarija will be the next department to hold an autonomy referendum. These electoral tools, which are invalid at a national and international level, are the latest devices contrived by the opposition, to derail the process of change taking place in Bolivia.

Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija are home to some of Bolivia’s largest agricultural and energy wealth. Each province seeks greater control over taxes, policing, land, and energy resources. The opposition-led autonomy measures would be used to undermine governmental programs aimed at redistributing land and economic resources through an agrarian land reform policy and taxes on Bolivia’s hydrocarbon sector. Greater control over police would weaken the central government’s law enforcement capability over a hostile opposition that is willing to use physical force and intimidation.

Bolivian Minister Alfredo Rada said the process of autonomy "should be legal, constitutional, democratic and based on the new Constitution of the State" instead of these referendums that are "illegal" and "separatist" and threaten to divide the nation.



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