The epic nature of today’s events in Bolivia flows from the long struggle between the country’s indigenous majority and a Europeanized ruling class, and from disparities between impoverished western highlands and four lowland eastern departments (states) thriving on natural gas and agribusiness. A government intent upon wealth redistribution is confronting eastern separatists for whom racism is a staple.

The face-off reached dramatic heights Aug. 10 when Bolivians voted on a referendum that, if approved, would have removed indigenous President Evo Morales from office, along with Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, and eight departmental prefects (governors). Commenting before the vote, Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel set the stage: “Today is the struggle of all people, one that demarcates Latin America’s road, whether toward liberation and sovereignty or toward darkness and dominion by enslavement through the powers of neo-liberalism.”

Preliminary results gave the president and vice president a nearly 65 percent plurality, up from their 53.7 percent victory margin in 2005, and kept in office prefects in Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija, Pando and Potosi. The first four want Morales out. Rejected were prefects in Cochabamba, La Paz and Oruro. According to the constitution, they will be replaced by presidential appointees. In Cochabamba, rightist Manfred Reyes is refusing to go.

The Morales government instigated the recall referendum last December amidst protests after the Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution during an opposition boycott. The conservative senate sanctioned the referendum in May.

In May and June referenda, four departments approved autonomy statutes.

The drama quickened when various judges ruled for and against the Aug. 10 referendum, opposition leaders engaged in hunger strikes, racist demonstrations proliferated, boycott rumors spread, threats kept Morales away from Independence Day celebrations in Sucre, and accusations mounted of U.S. meddling. (Reports claim separatists received some $4.1 million in USAID support in 2006.)

The Bolivian Labor Federation (COB, in Spanish) muddied the waters by demonstrating and blocking highways before the vote in response to stalled government negotiations over pensions. An Aug. 5 melee that left two unionists dead and dozens wounded served opposition propaganda, including Santa Cruz Mayor Percy Fernandez’ claim that President Morales “still has not learned to govern.” Fernandez called for the army to overthrow the government. The situation eased after the government and strikers agreed to resume negotiations following the referendum.

Some 3,500 vote monitors, including 300 international observers, testified to four million citizens having voted peacefully and efficiently. International “Intellectuals for the Unity and Sovereignty of Bolivia” had met beforehand in La Paz in support of the government. Left South American heads of state lent their solidarity. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement appealing for a “peaceful climate.”

President Morales greeted victory by calling for unity and for progress toward approving last year’s national constitution through a referendum. He prioritized income from natural resources to serving needs of the poor and signaled his desire to negotiate autonomy within the constitutional framework. He warned that his government would be tough on “sabotage and sedition.”

Santa Cruz reasserted its customary leading role toward other separatist departments as wealthy landowner and Prefect Ruben Costas told a congratulatory rally of plans under way for a new legislative assembly, a police authority and local control over taxes on natural gas revenues.

Analysts attribute Morales’ victory to achievements over two years due to nationalization of petroleum and mining resources. Urban unemployment dropped from 8.15 to 7.66 percent, minimum salary increased almost 25 percent, foreign debt is down 45 percent, international reserve funds more than doubled, and 700,000 elderly Bolivians each receive annual pensions of $422.

Under Juancito Pinto vouchers, 1.4 million children each receive $25 toward enrollment in 13,000 schools. Morales’ defenders point to the building of 40 secondary level hospitals and 18 eye care centers, a quarter of a million eye operations, and half a million literacy graduates — advances brought about with Cuban and Venezuelan help.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera outlined three post-referendum government obligations. They are: “social equality, the colonial wound we must repair; decentralization of power, the autonomists’ agenda; and the distribution of wealth.”