Bolivian military warns against autonomy vote

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (AFP) — Bolivia's military warned Saturday that a contested autonomy vote in the prosperous Santa Cruz province was a threat to its territorial integrity, raising tensions a day before the poll.

"We cannot dismiss that a serious danger exists, a threat to the territorial integrity" of Bolivia and "urgently demand a process of dialogue," the permanent secretary of the Supreme National Defense Council, Mario Ayala Ferrufino, told reporters in La Paz.

He said the vote could raise "serious consequences for the unity of the country that are in total contradiction" with the constitution, according to the Erbol news agency.

The declaration heightens the stakes of Sunday's vote in opposition-controlled Santa Cruz, which many fear could trigger widespread violence, possibly even military intervention.

Bolivia's leftwing President Evo Morales has repeated that he views the ballot as unconstitutional and has vowed to ignore its result.

Morales told CNN in Spanish he hoped Sunday would pass peacefully.

"I am counting on the conscience of the people who want to preserve Bolivia's unity," he said.

The provincial referendum asks Santa Cruz's 900,000 voters whether statutes should be adopted allowing the creation of a provincial security force and control of the territory -- including over land distribution and vast gas fields.

Surveys suggest the proposition will pass with as much as 70 percent support.

Three other eastern provinces are to hold their own autonomy votes next month, and two provinces are thinking of following suit.

If all are passed, landlocked Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America, comprising a total of nine provinces, would effectively be divided between the economically vibrant eastern lowlands and the hardscrabble Andean mountains.

The distinction is more than geographical: the mountains are mostly inhabited by indigenous Aymara and Quechua people, while lowland residents are mostly of European or mixed descent.

The long-running racial and cultural clash was laid bare when Morales became Bolivia's indigenous president in January 2006, and started shaking up the economy to give the indigenous majority more of the country's wealth.

He has embarked on a nationalization drive that this week included taking over a telecommunications company, Entel, that was a subsidiary of Telecom Italia, and four energy firms.

His efforts to railroad through constitutional changes -- at times excluding the opposition -- has raised hackles in the lowlands.

Though outnumbered in Santa Cruz, indigenous residents have made it clear they side with Morales.

About 5,000 of them held a protest march in the city of Santa Cruz Friday, with many saying they would heed the government's television ads to boycott the ballot box on Sunday.

The leader of a powerful indigenous rural group, Fidel Surco, told the crowd that if violence broke out, "the responsibility for a bloodbath" would rest with Santa Cruz's authorities for organizing the referendum.

An ally of Morales, left-wing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, on Saturday reiterated his support for the Bolivian government in the crisis, which he alleged was fomented by "foreign countries".

"This is not just Bolivia's problem, and we aren't going to allow it. Nobody is going to recognize this illegal referendum. It's a strategy to destabilize progressive governments in the region," Correa said in his weekly radio program.

The Organization of American States late Friday also came out against Santa Cruz's referendum, and called on those involved "to avoid any action to could undermine peace, constitutional order and peaceful coexistence among Bolivians."

Republished from AFP

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