Voters in Bolivia’s largest province are pressing for greater autonomy from the central government in La Paz, escalating tensions with President Evo Morales who denounced the effort as illegal. The United States urges the Bolivian government and the regional opposition to return to the bargaining table to resolve their differences in a peaceful and lasting fashion.
Supporters of the autonomy movement are seeking greater control over their regions’ governments, tax revenues and natural resources. In a weekend referendum, residents of Santa Cruz province in eastern Bolivia voted overwhelmingly for greater self-government. Three other restive provinces are expected to hold similar votes in coming weeks.
The votes aren’t legally binding, but they increase pressure on President Morales to moderate a reform campaign that has brought land redistribution and nationalization of some industries. The voting saw outbursts of violence, and if tensions go unchecked the situation threatens to split Bolivia, one of the western hemisphere’s poorest nations, along economic, social and racial lines. The region as a whole is also at risk, since Bolivia’s neighbors depend on its reserves of natural gas.
President Morales has criticized the autonomy movement, but after the vote he announced that he is willing discuss the issue with governors seeking looser ties to La Paz. The U.S. urges Bolivia’s leaders to seize this opportunity to consolidate democracy by promoting reconciliation as they seek to build a consensus on their nation’s future.