Illegal Autonomy Referendum Deepens Division in Bolivia

National Electoral Court brakes race for referendums

In February 2008, lowland departmental leaders and the Morales administration began a breakneck race to block each others’ initiatives to convoke referendums  As tensions grew, the president of the National Electoral Court ruled that none of the initiatives had a sufficient legal mandate, and put them on hold indefinitely, “until there is a law to convoke them. Furthermore, we mandate that this law must respect the 90 day minimum planning period…We advocate that the departmental governors cannot convoke referendums on autonomy statutes. This is the responsibility of Congress and Departmental Electoral Courts cannot mandate referendums, it is the National Electoral Court’s job."1

Although the MAS government accepted the ruling and cancelled the national referendum to approve the constitution, three departmental governments refused to comply and continue to plan referendums.  Santa Cruz forged ahead with plans to approve its autonomy statutes, violating several electoral laws.  Legally, departments that voted for autonomy in 2006 must wait for the approval of the new constitution to set guidelines before approving statutes.2 Furthermore, Bolivian law requires that the Constitutional Tribunal, currently non-funcional due to a lack of quorum, must rule that the question presented in a referendum is in fact constitutional.

Autonomy Protests

Simultaneous movements in La Paz (left), in support of the new constitution and Santa Cruz (right), against the new constitution and in support of an autonomy referendum.3

Controversy and Confusion:  Autonomy, the provisional constitution and the impasse between them

All parties feel strongly that the opposing side is acting illegally and refuse to acknowledge that everyone has cut procedural corners to force through their initiatives. The MAS approval of the constitution in December occurred amid controversy. Meanwhile, the autonomy statutes which Santa Cruz wants to pass on May 4th, have no clear legal foundation and were not drafted by elected representatives.  The only approval of these statutes comes from a citywide meeting of over one million people held on December 15, 2007.  However, there were also massive support marches for the provisional constitution in La Paz.4 Furthermore, although the autonomy statutes have similar content to that of a national constitution, they contain questionable assertions, such as granting the departmental government the right to sign international treaties.

Last year, opposition delegates impeded progress in forging a legal agreement on autonomy with their fellow members of the constitutional assembly. Furthermore, the indigenous and rural low-income majority of the four lowland departments stand to lose ground if urban elites push their autonomy statutes through.  If the autonomy statutes are successful, they could effectively neutralize the possibility of indigenous autonomies proposed in the new provisional constitution. In a statement by indigenous leader Alfredo Chavez from Santa Cruz on April 9, it is also clear that the indigenous peoples of rural Santa Cruz and the rest of the three eastern departments of the “media luna,” are against the autonomy vote.5

 The threat of secession after an affirmative vote for autonomy in the departments of Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni and Tarija has provoked fears both inside and outside of Bolivia.  However, this scenario is highly improbable and is primarily a bluff. For example, lowland departments remain dependent on the rest of Bolivia for markets and other services.  In December 2007, a conflict appeared imminent, and civic authorities solicited donations of antiriot gear to protect themselves, but found that they had to order it from Cochabamba. Furthermore, autonomy complicates matters for natural gas rich lowland regions that would still have to export gas primarily through Bolivian territory. International organizations would not recognize an independent “media luna,” and regional political opposition would no longer have leverage to meet one of its underlying goals, the resignation of Evo Morales. Ruben Costas, the right wing governor of the Santa Cruz department, dramatized the pending crisis by sending his youngest son on an “international exchange,"6 due to his fear that the situation in Bolivia will become confrontational.

Timeline of the regional referendum crisis:

July 2, 2006= National Referendum on Autonomy. 71 percent of the department of Santa Cruz votes in favor of departmental autonomy, to be defined in the new constitution. Autonomy also wins in Beni, Pando and Tarija, and comes close to fifty percent in Cochabamba and Sucre.

November 24- 25, 2007=Three dead and 200 wounded in Sucre in clashes with police during protests against the proceeding of the constitutional assembly and promoting the transfer of government institutions to Sucre. Departments of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba departmental governments support Chuquisaca’s demands (Sucre) against MAS government.

December 8- 9, 2007= Provisional constitution approved in Oruro by members of the MAS party of Evo Morales, without the participation of all opposition members. Constitution includes process for departmental autonomy, which leaders in Santa Cruz could have negotiated, had they participated in the constitutional assembly.

December 15, 2007= Approval of autonomy statutes in Santa Cruz in citywide gathering of one million people. Autonomy statute cites various international documents to justify its legality, including declarations by the Organization of American States (OAS) in favor of decentralization. The approval of the autonomy statutes seems to have been monitored by a small group of people and then later presented to the citizens of Santa Cruz during the emotionally charged rally

Late January, 2008=  Referendum race: Santa Cruz and lowland departments threaten to set their own new autonomy referendums in early May, and the MAS government responds saying they will call a constitutional referendum for the same date.

February 28, 2008= After a last minute agenda change, Congress votes to revoke departments legal rights to call referendums until their government are democratically elected, approves the referendum for the constitution and takes away departments’ rights to convoke their own referendums. Protestors supporting Morales government block members of opposition parties from entering the session.

March 7, 2008= The National Electoral Court declares that “the departmental governors cannot convoke autonomy referendums because it is the job of the National Congress,"7 making it clear that the autonomy referendum, which Santa Cruz has decided to go ahead with, is illegal. The National Electoral Court also declares illegal all referendums, even those called by the Morales government, until the laws set forth in the Constitution are followed.

April 8, 2008= Catholic Church agrees to mediate impending conflict by citing four points of conflict resolution as the foundation for dialogue.

April 14, 2008= David Caputo of the OAS carries out a fact-finding mission to Bolivia while seeking dialogue with the five departmental governors from Cochabamba, Tarija, Beni, Pando and Santa Cruz. Government of Evo Morales is open to OAS mediation, but the opposition opposes it.

May 4, 2008= Referendum set in Santa Cruz to vote on autonomy statutes. Autonomy statutes do not call for automatic secession of the Santa Cruz department from Bolivia, but lay out a new system of government for the department. The implications of an affirmative vote are unclear in the draft of the autonomy statutes.

Police, civilian militias and the military: Threats and counter-threats

 The election for the autonomy statutes will probably go ahead as scheduled at the persistence of the governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas. The MAS government threatened two possible scenarios: one, they will withdraw the national police so that there will be no law enforcement around polling places on May 4th; or two, they will call a state of emergency (estado de sitio), under which all referendums and voting are illegal.  They later retraced the second statement. Both these scenarios heighten tension within the police forces and fear for the officials in Santa Cruz. The government of Santa Cruz countered that they will form civilian militias of young cruceños, to monitor the voting stations.8

These brigades of young citizens, some from the often violent Santa Cruz Youth League which has been implicated in beatings of indigenous people as well as attacks and harassment against its political opponents, provoked further tension and pressure from national government supporters. The threat of the involvement of the military to control or even attempt to detain the referendum has not curbed support of the referendum among the lowland elite. The commander of the armed forces, in a statement on March 31st, far out-stepped his mandate, illegally warning against any form of separatist activities, “We will very energetically enforce the constitution; we will not permit the disintegration of the country. There are laws that dictate that if there are people who fuel or speak of separatism, we can try them either in military or civil courts.”9

The national police force is adding to the mix of uncertainty about what group will monitor the referendum and if there will be confrontation due to the enormous challenges it has faced since the beginning of 2008. There has been a lynching of three police officers in a case which is far from resolved, violent conflict among the police forces in Cochabamba over wages and pension payments, and now the possibility of having to stand down on referendum day. It remains unclear what role the Bolivian security forces will play during the referendum, nor what the outcome will be.

Regional conflicts, chaos and additional problems

The threat of conflict occurring on the day of the referendum has been foreshadowed by regional conflicts, blockades across the country and supplementary problems to the pending vote. Inflation has skyrocketed in the first few months of this year and has become a focus of many popular protests. Due to inflation and high levels of contraband, the Morales government decided to prohibit the exportation of cooking oil, corn, rice and meat from the country in order to guarantee a national supply.  This decision came after cooking oil prices more than doubled or tripled in the past several months.10 The prohibition has enraged many sectors of society, primarily large scale soy bean and cooking oil producers, including a Peruvian and U.S. consortium.   Some labor unions have also protested the measure, fearing lay-offs after one key factory shut down. The threat of a national transportation strike has been pending since the prohibition. Road blockades choked the highway connecting La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz for almost a week. This issue is political as well as economic. The president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Branco Marinkovic, is also president of one of the largest producers of cooking oil in the nation, intensifying the conflict and lack of dialogue between lowland elites and the Morales government.11

Aside from inflation and the protests over the ban on cooking oil exportation, there have also been regional conflicts. The Camiri, part of southern Santa Cruz, department has seen conflict, civil strikes, blockades and violence among police and protestors. Camiri is part of the Chaco area which is comprised of regions of three departments (Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca and Tarija). This medium sized city is the heart of the Bolivian gas industry and an area which wants to break away from Santa Cruz and form a separate Chaco department. The problems in Camiri, which on April 11 involved 6 municipal governments in the Camiri region, stem directly from the government’s land reform policy and its effect on the cattle companies in the area of the southern Santa Cruz department.12 As of the middle of April, Camiri has been blockading national borders connecting Bolivia with Argentina and Paraguay for over two weeks. Violent confrontations between police and the protestors occurred for over a week and as of April 15 there were over fifty people seriously injured in the region.13 These problems around the country highlight some of the many complexities of the autonomy and constitution issues and foreshadow potential conflict around the referendum vote on May 4th.

The Catholic Church attempts to mediate

There have been few attempts to arbitrate the conflicting strategies and political visions of the MAS government and the lowland elite. The two sides seem content to follow their appropriate visions without pondering the future ramifications for conflict and violence that could result from their unwillingness to compromise.

On April 8th, the Catholic Church accepted requests to mediate the looming conflicts by declaring four points of clarification to improve relations before the May referendum.  One, diminish mistrust and doubletalk; two, abandon sectarian, party and ideological differences; three, leave behind scorn, insults, hatred and vengeance; and four, end the propaganda campaigns against opponents on both sides. The executive government and the governors of the four lowland departments initially agreed to engage in the Church’s mediation dialogue to work towards a peaceful resolution,14 but have all failed to comply with the conditions, thus creating additional impediments

The Catholic Church’s attempts at mediation in past conflicts in Bolivia have often been highly symbolic or rejected, and failed efforts at dialogue could fuel further friction instead of effectively averting conflict.

 International eyes on Bolivia

The international community, especially neighboring countries, is closely watching the situation in Bolivia.  The Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU) announced that they would not send election observers to Bolivia. Members of the OEA from Argentina who were sent to monitor and mediate the situation reported sectarian conflicts and rigid stances forming both within the MAS government and the lowland elites. On April 14th, five governors from the Bolivian departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija and Cochabamba held an emergency meeting with the OAS to discuss mediation of the impending conflict in the city of Tarija. In a positive statement they claimed, “The central government does not have problems with mediators intervening, whether they are from Bolivia or not, the most important thing is the unity of the nation."15

One Brazilian official sent stated that “it was not easy either for the Brazilian elite to become accustomed to the Lula government.” The official was emphasizing that the lowland elite in Santa Cruz needs to get used to the Morales government and deal with radical changes occurring in the country.16 If threats and inflammatory rhetoric continue, and Santa Cruz moves ahead with its referendum in spite of legal prohibitions, the weeks leading up to the May 4th referendum will be filled with tension. A “yes” vote for the autonomy statutes on May 4th, will not see the sliver of Amazonian basin known as the “media luna,” or half moon, turn into a new South American state, but it will cause many growing pains for a Bolivian republic.


1. La Razón, “Exeni bloquea los referendos, pero 3 cortes lo desconocen,” March 8, 2008
2.The law states, "Within the framework of national unity, are you in favor of giving the Constitutional Assembly the legally-binding mandate to establish departmental autonomy regulations to be applied immediately after the ratification of the new constitution in the departments where this referendum is approved by a majority, in a way that its authorities will be directly elected by citizens and would receive from the national government executive capacities, legal and administrative powers, and economic resources stipulated by the constitution and laws?" LEY DE CONVOCATORIA A REFERÉNDUM NACIONAL VINCULANTE A LA ASAMBLEA CONSTITUYENE PARA LAS AUTONOMIASDEPARTAMENTALES. Ley 3365. . El Honorable Congreso de Nacional de Bolivia.  6 March 2006.
3. Los Tiempos, “El referéndum será la última batalla, afirma el presidente,” December 16, 2007
4. Los Tiempos, “Cabildos aprueban autonomía de facto y desacato a nueva CPE,” December 16, 2007
5. Unitel News Channel, April 9, 2008
6. Los Tiempos, “Costas envió su hijo al exterior ante amenazas,” April 11, 2008
7. Los Tiempos, “CNE suspende los referendos; Santa Cruz y Beni se resisten,” March 8, 2008
8. Los Tiempos, “CDE admite que estado de sitio frenaría referéndum cruceño,” March 31, 2008
9. Los Tiempos, “Conformarán ‘guardia civil’ pese a amenazas,” March 26, 2008
10. Los Tiempos, “Prohibición de exportación de alimentos causará pérdida de 30 millones,” March 7, 2008
11. Opinión, “Alcances del Decreto Supremo 29480, Confiscan 1,930 litros de aceite,” March 27, 2008
12. El Correo, “Santa Cruz: Se agudiza el conflicto por la tierra,” April 11, 2008
13. Los Tiempos, “Suspenden el saneamiento; la tensión no baja en Camiri,” April 15, 2008
14. Opinión, “Iglesia advierte que la crisis puede causar dolor y muerte,” April 9, 2008
15. Los Tiempos, “OEA se reúne con cinco prefectos y Evo espera que lo llamen a diálogo,” April 15, 2008
16. Los Tiempos, “Mediación o apoyo?,” April 8, 2008