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6 May 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:16am

Bolivian poppycock

A faux referendum in Bolivia demanding greater autonomy for the Santa Cruz province is nothing more

By Kenzie Eliasen

There is a group of people in Bolivia trying to con us ignorant foreigners into believing that decent people in their country this weekend started their brave fight-back against the forces of darkness in general and against the evil left-wing monster Evo Morales their President in particular.

What poppycock!

On Sunday in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a bustling city on the tropical eastern plains of Bolivia, a bunch of locals went through the motions of organising a “referendum” over the future of the department (or province) of the same name. If it was approved, the organisers said, they would take over decisions about who could be a citizen in Santa Cruz, how landownership would be organised and registered, how the flourishing natural gas and oil industry would be taxed and how much of the tax that they would henceforward collect would be sent to Morales and the central government in the administrative capital, La Paz, far away at the top of the Andes to the west.

In short the Cambas, as the locals are known, would go their own sweet way and take the money generated by their natural gas and oil deposits with them. These people, many of them white or near-white, would then be able to relax happy in the thought that they could virtually sever relations with the majority of Bolivians, the dark indigenous little men in the mountains whom they call the Collas.

Unlike the Collas the Cambas’ leaders each tend to have a few thousand rolling acres and good deal of spare cash. They have impeccably European names such as Branko Marinkovic or Rubén Costas and they think they have friends in the US capital who don’t like Morales.

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The ideological ancestor of the Cambas is Ian Smith, the settlers’ leader who held out against majority rule in what was then Southern Rhodesia out as long as he could – which wasn’t very long.

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A modern parallel to the weekend’s events in Santa Cruz would be a vote by the Rotary Club of Cheltenham in favour of home rule for their town and its secession – flowerbeds and all – from the European Union. Or the Shriners of Phoenix voting for Arizona to leave the US for fear of Obama and the Mexicans.

Bolivia’s Colla majority consists of the Aymaras like Evo, the Quechuas and the other indigenous peoples who are the descendants of the founders of the Inca empire and who were the power behind his smashing victory in the free and fair presidential elections in 2005 in the hope they would get a better deal from him than they have got in the 500 years since the Europeans first arrived.

Sadly for its organisers the shabby little exercise on Sunday was a failure. According to their own highly dubious statistics, they claim it produced a majority of 85 per cent in favour of “autonomy”. But it attracted only 60 per cent of possible voters. Morales’ supporters in understandable rage against an electoral farce destroyed some of the polling stations.

The elected reformist government in La Paz which wants a better deal for the majority of Bolivians understandably ruled the exercise out of order and the results null and void. Yet other tropical departments in Bolivia such as Beni and Pando are planning to follow Santa Cruz’s example, declare autonomy and rend Bolivia in half.

Their trouble is that few of Bolivia’s neighbours would recognise any new landlocked political unit in South America that might arise out of these machinations, if only for fear of the sort of irredentism they might find in their own back yards.

Morales has had specific and unequivocal messages of support from the leaders of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, his country’ immediate neighbours not to mention the Cubans and the Venezuelans who have invested millions in giving Bolivia its first real health service and literacy scheme. And Fernando Lugo, the former reformist bishop who is president-elect of Paraguay, is certainly not going to do anything to upset Morales’ apple cart.

Both Brazil and Argentina are for the moment too dependent on the natural gas that they buy from Bolivia to risk causing any new upsets which might condemn Brazilians and Argentinians to a very uncomfortable winter in the next few months.

In Washington the White House, no lover of Morales or Lugo and worried by the upsurge of feeling against US policies, has just announced the resurrection of its Fourth Fleet will take place on 1 July. It will charged with patrolling the coasts of Latin America and delivering warnings to uppity Latins. But the US Navy will have a difficult task. Its trouble is that neither Santa Cruz, nor Bolivia, nor even Paraguay has got a coast.