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National referendum to decide Bolivian leaders; futures

Secession plans continue in ;half-moon' region

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Following a recently passed referendum measure, Bolivian President Evo Morales is preparing for a national yes or no vote on whether he, his administration and the governors of all the regions get to keep their jobs until the end of their terms.

He is receiving international support for his administration, and election observers from several Latin American countries are ready to participate, but these facts are not stopping the secession plans of Bolivia's ''half-moon region.''

Opposition governors are ignoring the referendum legislation and pushing on with setting up autonomous governments, first in Santa Cruz, where a controversial vote was held recently.

This most recent challenge is seen as a result of the heated and sometimes violent dispute between the Morales administration and opposition leaders from the wealthy half-moon regions of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, but especially the Santa Cruz faction, as local voters went to the polls May 4 to decide on ''autonomy'' for the region and whose results are another source of conflict.

Morales had also arranged for meetings in mid-May with all of the governors, but the half-moon delegation refused the offer (insisting that they would only cooperate if leaders of the Catholic Church were present). In effect, the opposition bloc is calling the results a mandate for autonomy and Morales, along with allies in five Latin American governments and the Organization of American States, is calling the results unconstitutional and a victory for Morales. (The pro-Morales side is warning that the partition of Bolivia ''will not be accepted.'')

It had been another tumultuous week for the indigenous president, with significant announcements emerging every day.

On May 12, Morales announced that all Bolivians would be given the opportunity to give an up or down vote Aug. 10 on his administration and the other leaders. For Morales and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, that means they would need at least 53.7 percent of the vote, or 1.54 million votes, to be able to stay in office. If the vote against them goes higher than those figures, they would have six months to arrange another general election before leaving office.

The referendum places the same vote-count requirements on the governors, or prefects, to earn the same number of votes to stay in office; but unlike the president's situation, if the governors do not receive the same number of votes that they earned originally, they would have to leave office the next day, and the president would appoint interim governors until the elections were held.

Morales tried to pass this same referendum last December, weeks after violence erupted in the city of Sucre in the Chuquisaca region. At that time, the opposition-controlled Senate blocked final passage of the referendum vote, following bloody reprisals in Sucre against the Morales-supported Constituent Assembly. In May, however, the measure was suddenly revisited and then passed by the Senate, where it had been sitting for more than four months.

''I am not afraid of the people, that they tell the truth and judge us,'' Morales said after hearing that the measure had passed. However, the reaction of his most vocal critic, Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas, was an almost complete rejection.

The day after the announced referendum, Costas announced that his administration would continue to follow the plans for autonomy and start to put together a new legislative assembly with five indigenous representatives. Costas said Santa Cruz would not recognize or participate in the Aug. 10 vote. His half-moon allies from the Pando, Beni and Tarija regions also reiterated their plans to hold similar autonomy referendum votes in June. All of the opposition leaders have also stated publicly that they would consider dialogue with the Morales administration only if the federal government recognizes the legitimacy of the Santa Cruz autonomy vote.

International support for further dialogue and for Morales has been appearing daily in the last few weeks, starting with a May 3 OAS declaration that lists seven points regarding the conflict. Points 2 and 4 allude to the institutions position on secession: ''2. To welcome the expressions of respect for the constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia, and to reject any attempt to disrupt them. ... 4. To make a vigorous appeal to all actors to ensure that their actions are governed by respect for the rule of law, refraining from any action that may lead to a breakdown of the peace and/or constitutional order and affect coexistence between Bolivians.''

Intellectuals and other leaders from the U.S., Latin America and Europe sent a letter to Morales that was delivered in mid-May, stating their support for his government and their concern about the nature of the opposition.

''Also, we have noted the belligerent, intransigent and illegal attitude of the powerful sectors that hide behind a shield of 'autonomy efforts' - far away from the just and inclusive autonomy of the indigenous peoples and from the proper departments and regions formed in the new constitution - to shatter the process of justice initiated by the popular government that you lead,'' the letter stated. Among the 300 signatories were writers, human rights activists along with indigenous leaders from 20 countries.

Several of the letter's signers were from Brazil, where May 13 that country's foreign minister, Celso Amorim stated, ''I don't think we'll see separatism. Even because South America would never accept it.

''Brazil is not against autonomy wishes as long as constitutional principles are respected and that is the will of the Bolivian people.''

In the meantime, 34 indigenous peoples from the Oriente, Chaco and Amazonia regions are refusing to recognize the Santa Cruz autonomy movement, and have announced their support for the Aug. 10 referendum. In a press statement issued May 12, the group also ''resolved to declare themselves to be in a state of emergency and permanent mobilization at the national level until the conclusion of the constituent process with the approval of the new Magna Carta and the implementation of indigenous autonomies.''

Discussions of possible dialogues between the Morales administration and the opposition continue, but no fixed dates or places have been announced.