SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA, Bolivia — While sporadic street battles erupted, voters in this divided country's richest and second most-populous province appeared to approve a controversial measure Sunday that would make them autonomous from the leftist government of President Evo Morales.
According to an exit poll by the firm Captura Consulting, 82.7 percent of voters in Santa Cruz province supported the autonomy referendum, creating what promises to be a tense standoff between Morales and provincial leaders. The exit poll surveyed 7,980 people. Another quick poll count conducted by the same firm found the referendum passed by 85.3 percent. Official results won’t come out until Monday morning.
Morales called the vote “illegal and unconstitutional” Sunday night, and the country's top electoral court has said it will not certify the results because only the country's Congress can call referendums. Morales has warned leaders of the eastern Bolivian province not to implement the autonomy statute, although he refused to send in troops to block Sunday's vote.
“I convoke all the governors tomorrow to work for a real autonomy,” Morales said in a televised speech. “I hope the governors hear me so together we can guarantee autonomy for different sectors, regions, indigenous people and also provinces.”
Santa Cruz prefect Ruben Costas, who’s equivalent to a governor but now has few powers, announced Sunday night he would work for a “national agreement” on autonomy.
“This isn’t the end of the process,” Costas said. “It’s the beginning of a heroic fight in this democratic process.”
Bolivia's government is highly centralized, with police, education and other government services controlled by the national government. The referendum would make Santa Cruz the equivalent of a U.S. state, letting the province form its own security forces, set land-use and taxation policies and elect a governor and legislature. It would also let Santa Cruz negotiate foreign treaties.
Tension over the referendum exploded Sunday when autonomy opponents in the rural Santa Cruz towns of San Pedro, San Julian, Yapacani and Montero, as well as in the poor outskirts of Santa Cruz city, attacked polling sites, in some cases destroying and burning cardboard ballot boxes.
Street battles between autonomy supporters and opponents left some two dozen people injured in the province, and an elderly man died after he inhaled tear gas shot by police to break up crowds in the impoverished Santa Cruz neighborhood of Plan 3000, local media reported.
"The vote is illegal, and there is therefore nothing to vote for or against," said Jose Dario Linera, who joined hundreds of anti-autonomy protesters in the neighborhood. Many of them brandished sticks, firecrackers and rocks and attacked suspected autonomy supporters, news reporters and photographers and even an ambulance. Eyewitness said they saw pro-autonomy supporters counterattack with firearms without hitting anybody.
"Very soon here it's going to be like Berlin at the time of the wall, divides always getting greater," Linera said.
Anti-autonomy rallies also filled the capital of La Paz in mountainous, western Bolivia, the adjacent city of El Alto and Cochabamba in the center of this impoverished, 9.1 million-person country, where indigenous people make up the majority of the population.
Anti-autonomy activists have called the referendum an attempt by eastern Bolivian business leaders to split the country and hoard profits from the province's natural gas and agriculture industries. Santa Cruz generates about 30 percent of the country's gross domestic product and makes up a quarter of Bolivia's population. It is also less indigenous than the country's western half.
Plan 3000 resident Maria Alma Gonzales said she supported the autonomy statute because it would give Santa Cruz more control over its own budget. She was waiting to vote when anti-autonomy protesters rushed her polling site and blocked ballot boxes from entering.
"This vote will give us more liberty and money," Gonzales said. "Of 100 bolivianos we give as taxes, 90 go to the government, and we don't know what happens with it. From now on, it will be for us only, and we will be the ones to manage our incomes."
Three other eastern Bolivian provinces, Beni, Pando and Tarija, have scheduled similar autonomy votes in coming weeks, and leaders in another two of the country's nine provinces support such measures.
Government Minister Alfredo Rada Velez blamed Sunday's violence on Santa Cruz leaders and called the situation "worrying and grave." Morales has accused the United States of pushing the autonomy vote, a charge U.S. officials deny, and his government has received the support of other leftist leaders in Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
"This statute has failed because it's created divisions among Santa Cruz's own residents," Rada Velez said.
Branko Marinkovic, president of a powerful Santa Cruz civic committee, said the president's Movement to Socialism Party was behind Sunday's attacks and told reporters, "We reject this anti-democratic attitude that doesn't let people vote."
The autonomy referendum's apparent victory throws Bolivia into a legal gray zone with even provincial leaders admitting they don't know how they'll implement the autonomy statute without the cooperation of the central government.
Additionally, Morales' allies are pushing their own government reforms in a draft constitution still awaiting voter approval. That document would give the national government more control over natural resources, grant autonomy to indigenous communities and let Morales, who is restricted to a single five-year term, be re-elected once, among other measures.
While Santa Cruz would have 120 days to start implementing the autonomy statute, Daniel Castro, a Santa Cruz autonomy leader, said he hoped Sunday's results would convince Morales to work with provincial leaders and include autonomy in the new national constitution.
"It's not like the next day, everything will change," Castro said. "But the reality is we come out of this referendum stronger than ever."