SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA, Bolivia — This divided country faces a constitutional crisis Sunday when its richest and second most-populous province votes whether to declare itself autonomous from President Evo Morales's national government, a referendum the president has called illegal.
If the referendum passes, as polls show it overwhelmingly will, leaders of Santa Cruz province say they'll elect a state legislature, organize local police and otherwise set up a government equivalent to that of a U.S. state.
Morales has called the referendum a move to split up this nation of 9.1 million and to thwart his government's efforts to rewrite Bolivia's constitution so that its indigenous majority wins more political power. Bolivia has a centralized government, where police, taxation and other government functions are controlled by federal officials.
"This referendum violates the current constitution, because there's no mechanism to convoke it," said Leonida Zurita, a close Morales ally and a substitute senator with the president's Movement to Socialism party. "They want to found a second Bolivian state, and we won't let the fatherland be divided."
Morales, a leftist critic of U.S. policies in the region, has received the support of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua in the provincial-autonomy fight. The Bolivian president also has accused the United States of backing the autonomy move, a charge U.S. officials have rejected.
Autonomy advocates, including Santa Cruz business leaders, denied that they wanted to secede and insisted that their goal is modernizing an overly centralized government. Three other eastern Bolivian provinces, Beni, Pando and Tarija, also are planning to hold autonomy votes in coming weeks, and leaders in two others, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca, are also advocating autonomy. Only three provinces have resisted the idea.
"We're seeing a social process that's happening all over this country," said Eduardo Paz, president of Santa Cruz's chamber of commerce. "After Sunday, the people will have sent the message that they want to do things in a new way."
Both Morales and autonomy advocates have called for calm Sunday and cancelled potentially incendiary actions by both autonomy supporters and the president's indigenous activists. This week, the government prohibited civilians from carrying arms, and Morales has pledged not to send troops to Santa Cruz to block the referendum vote.
On Wednesday, the Organization of American States sent Political Affairs Secretary Dante Caputo to Bolivia to initiate last-minute dialogue between the two sides, but he left with only pledges to keep the public peace.
The OAS held its second meeting in less than a week on Friday to discuss the crisis in Bolivia. After Caputo briefed ambassadors, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca gave a hard-hitting speech, blaming the governors for failure to hold a dialogue before the referendum and insisting that the referendum was illegal and risked breaking up the country. OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza warned that violence could break out and "could last a long time.''
On the streets of Santa Cruz Wednesday night, thousands of people attended a pro-autonomy demonstration, with several saying they were ready to defend the referendum with force if necessary.
"I voted for Morales two years ago because I had great hopes for Bolivia," said student Jose Sanabria. "Now, I think he doesn't do things the right way. He acts against Santa Cruz and against autonomies."
At the heart of the conflict is a July 2006 referendum in which Bolivians nationwide rejected allowing provincial autonomies, while voters in the four provinces now pushing referendums approved the proposal.
Those provincial leaders have said that the vote lets them pursue their separate paths despite the national rejection, while federal officials insist that only a national approval allows for provincial autonomy.
Santa Cruz leaders have long demanded more independence from Bolivia's federal government and complained that the province surrenders millions of dollars in tax revenue without getting enough back in government support.
The province, which sprawls over the country's eastern flatlands and produces natural gas, soybeans and other exports, is responsible for about 30 percent of Bolivia's gross domestic product while making up about a quarter of the country's population. The province's population is also less indigenous than that of the country's mountainous west.
Since Morales became the country's first indigenous president in 2006, Santa Cruz leaders have slammed government plans to redistribute farmland and seize more state control over natural gas and other industries. On Thursday, Morales announced that he'd nationalize the country's main telecommunications company, Entel, which is half-owned by Telecom Italia, and reclaim control of four foreign-owned natural gas companies.
Political scientist Fernando Mayorga said that despite the tensions, both sides would have to negotiate after the referendum because "they can't maintain this political tension for much longer."
The goal, Mayorga said, would be fitting regional autonomies into a draft constitution that Morales allies hurriedly approved in December, without the presence of most opposition representatives.
That constitution would allow Morales to be re-elected once, claim more state control over natural resources and grant autonomy to indigenous communities and cities, among other actions.
Morales' congressional allies had originally scheduled a national referendum also for this Sunday on the draft constitution, but cancelled it after the country's top electoral court said the vote couldn't be adequately organized in time. The president's activist allies had surrounded the national legislature in February and blocked opposition legislators from voting on the referendum date.
The electoral court also has declared the Santa Cruz referendum illegal, saying only the national legislature could schedule such votes, and announced it won't certify Sunday's results.
"The Santa Cruz leaders know the autonomy statute can't be implemented where there is no constitutional framework," Mayorga said. "And both sides know they can't resolve this outside of political negotiations. The fact is they're both too weak to defeat each other, so they have to work together eventually."
(Special correspondent Heger reported from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)