In a blow to the revolutionary Bolivian government of President Evo Morales, overwhelmingly elected in 2005 as the nation’s first indigenous president, a much anticipated autonomy referendum in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz department gained approval by an estimated 80 percent of voters on May 4.

Earlier, the government had cited rulings and statements from Bolivia’s Congress, Constituent Assembly and National Electoral Court as well as the Organization of American States to declare the referendum illegal. Spokespersons called for a boycott, and some 40 percent of the voters complied, with another 15 percent destroying their ballots. Racist Santa Cruz youth groups intimidated indigenous voters, while referendum opponents blocked highways and burned ballots found marked “yes’ prior to the voting. Arrests totaled 100; another 40 were wounded. One elderly man was killed.

Economic, class and racial divisions underlie confrontation in Santa Cruz, long controlled by European-descended commercial and landowning classes. Indigenous Bolivians and Bolivians living in poverty each comprise two-thirds of the country’s population. By contrast, Santa Cruz, in Bolivia’s east, accounts for 30 percent of the country’s GDP; 15 families there own 1.2 million acres. Neighboring Tarija department, expected soon to mount its own autonomy referendum together with two other eastern departments, produces 80 percent of Bolivia’s natural gas.

Having nationalized 44 oil and gas companies, the government enjoys $2 billion in annual revenues from hydrocarbon production, up from $180 million in 2005. This is used to fund social programs and expanded pension coverage. Stepped-up land re-distribution is directed at preventing inequalities exemplified by 100 Bolivian families owning 62.5 million acres, five times the holdings of two million other families. Last December, the Constituent Assembly approved a document ensuring indigenous rights and state control over natural resources. At that point, Santa Cruz announced its autonomy referendum.

Many government supporters viewed the statute as portending separation. It calls for control by Santa Cruz over natural resources, fiscal management, land distribution, transportation networks, agricultural sales, telecommunications, the police and military forces.

Bolivian armed forces remain supportive of the government. On May 3, General Luis Trigo cited constitutional authority for the military’s role to defend the whole state. A week earlier Vice Admiral Jose Luis Cavos noted that “We are a people in arms …We will defend unity all our lives.”

As head of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Branko Marinkovic personifies the autonomist movement. His riches serve to illustrate economic realities propelling the struggle. The immigrant from Croatia owns 100,000 acres, has interests in a transnational gas pipeline company and holds “complete control of the soybean and sunflower industry.” Accused of illegally owning 50,000 acres, he faces the loss of 35,000 acres to agrarian reform.

The Morales government has blamed the campaign to divide Bolivia on U.S. manipulation, a claim consistent with author Eva Golinger’s charge that Washington has dispensed $129 million to Morales’ opponents over three years. U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg has been characterized as the “ambassador of ethnic cleansing” from his State Department experience in helping to destroy Yugoslavia. Observers have noted increased U.S. military activity in Paraguay, adjacent to Santa Cruz.

Speaking to the nation late on May 4, President Morales praised the abstention and defacing of ballots by a possible majority of Cruzanos as a “great rebellion.” They were acting in “defense of the interests of the majority.” For him, the vote was a “simple poll without any legal value.”

“We want autonomy for the people,” he asserted, “not only for the rich.” Bolivia’s proposed new constitution provides for autonomy of indigenous groups, departments and municipalities. Morales suggested that if his Santa Cruz opponents had waited to work toward autonomy through a fully approved constitution, their efforts would have been legal.

Morales assured listeners that his government sought equality for all and an end to “internal colonialism.” Analyst Nelson Valdes, over the Internet, predicts that “We might see, shortly, a ‘dual power’ scenario — usually the beginnings of a revolutionary, counterrevolutionary or civil war situation.”