As it prepares for the Constituent Assembly that begins on Aug. 6, Bolivian President Evo Morales’ government faces divisions and the prospect of protracted struggle. The issue of autonomy for states and regions came to a head on July 2 when four states in Bolivia’s east — Pando, Beni, Tarija and Santa Cruz — opted for autonomy by 70 percent majorities. The vote nationwide went 57.6 percent against autonomy.

Whether secession will take place and how to define autonomy are questions that the Constituent Assembly will decide. The Morales forces will have to negotiate with competing parties there because on July 2 they did not secure the two-thirds majority of delegates that would have afforded them automatic control of the assembly.

On July 4 in Santa Cruz, the hub of separatist agitation, conflict over autonomy turned violent. Local separatists fought with Morales supporters for control of an indigenous workers’ center. Fifty people were injured and troops were called in. The pro-separatist police chief who refused to remove local rowdies from the building was sacked.

Separatist leanings correlate with wealth, at least in Bolivia’s lowland east, the so-called “half moon” area that includes the four autonomist states. According to a UN study, 100 families own 25 million hectares (62 million acres) of land there. Nationwide, 90 percent of the population own only 7 percent of the food-producing land. On July 3, in Santa Cruz, Morales signed a land reform program, most of it targeting the “half moon” states.

Santa Cruz itself accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s industry, 60 percent of its oil wells, 50 percent of the GDP, and almost half of the nation’s agricultural production.

In late May representatives of the landowners’ federation walked out on talks with government leaders. They announced they would be forming “self-defense” groups for the protection of property rights.

Juan Carlos Urenda, lawyer for the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, hinted at the disruptive potential of separatism. He said, “We are coming to the point when we are not going to look any more for legal arguments. … If the Constituent Assembly does not respect the law and the popular will of 72 percent of voters in Santa Cruz, the country is going to split.”