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Yesterday, April 30th, the department of Santa Cruz cried out loud: Iyambae! Autonomia! The cry was, in Guarani and Spanish, a loud autonomy cry. As I started to write these lines, tens of thousands of Cruceños were gathered in the already customary place, the Cristo Redentor (Christ Redeemer) rotunda, to celebrate the end of the campaña por el sí (the yes campaign).
On May 4, Santa Cruz will, against all odds, carry out a region-wide referendum to ask the people to accept or reject the autonomic statutes put forward by a group regional leaders, including the Prefect of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, the president of the civic committee, Branko Marincovich, the president of the private business owners' association, Carlos Dabdoub, and citizens such as Juan Carlos Urenda, who pretty much wrote the proposed statutes.
According to press reports, the support for autonomy in the Santa Cruz department is around 74 per cent, 13 per cent are against and an equal number are unsure. By contrast, in La Paz, 27 per cent would vote yes and 61 per cent would vote against. It is generally accepted, by all observers, that the people of Santa Cruz will indeed overwhelmingly vote sí (yes) in the referendum. This will happen, as I say it earlier, against all odds.
The media fight has been taking place for some time now. The national government has spent an unspecified amount of money to mount a large campaign against the referendum. In this campaign, the government calls the statutes illegal and alleges that they will the be reason why Bolivia will be divided. In the television spots the government has paid for, it asks the people in Santa Cruz not to become accomplice to an illegal referendum. The allegations are strong, however, it seems only to have an effect in the Western part of the country. On its part, the autonomic movement has also put an equally large campaign. The end of it, we saw in Santa Cruz yesterday.
One question being asked is (and reported by the international press and some international observers) what will happen on the 4th?
From inside the country, I have the impression (that is contrary to most observers not in the country and only being guided by the international press) that things are calmer as I expected them to be. The party in Santa Cruz yesterday was surprisingly festive. There was regional music and a climate of carnival. However, a bit of tension could be felt, underneath all that euphoria. During his speech, Costas referred to the various threats some leaders in La Paz were issuing against the referendum. As he was going through then, the people there started to chant: "let them come, we are not afraid." At the same time, the news reports in La Paz were full of leader statements condemning the referendum and calling on cruceños not to participate.
My impression is not so dramatic as the international press portrays the situation here. Some reports predict almost a civil war. As I say, the climate in La Paz and in Santa Cruz are surprisingly calm. Various organizations, such as the CSUTCB, COB, and Conamaq (indigenous, workers and campesino organizations) have called their members to march and demonstrate in the streets of La Paz, and all the capital cities around the country. In fact, the people from Conamaq have started a march beginning in the Andean town of Patacamaya, which is to end in plaza Murillo, in La Paz. For that reason, I am expecting marches and demonstrations from today, May 1 to Sunday, May 4. Today, the government organized a celebration/protest, commemorating the Chicago Haymarket affair. What impressed me the most, is not the peacefulness with which the people danced on the streets, but the small number of people gathered there. I expected more. At the same time, on my way to the plaza Murillo, where the event took place, life went on in La Paz. Just to cite some examples, there was a marathon organized by the newspaper El Diario, and this event went on as expected. People were (I guess already accustomed) going on with their lives. As I asked about the demonstration, the people I asked to, calmly answered it was still going on and they pointed in the direction where the government lies. As it was some remote place where some other everyday event was taking place.
The most problematic day will be the 4th in Santa Cruz. On that day, I expect some violence to take place. Especially, in some areas where the government of Morales (MAS) has support. More specifically, in the towns of San Julian and El Torno, and the neighborhoods of Plan 3000 and Villa Primero de Mayo. These places have expressed hostility towards the referendum, because they support the central government. There is even some reports about San Julian, where the majority (MAS supporters) have threatened to burn ballot boxes and to stop people from participating in the referendum. People who want to participate feel oppressed and have expressed their determination to vote. Around the neighborhoods in the city of Santa Cruz, the danger is the commandos from the Union Juvenil Crucenista (UJC) and the so called "security forces" who have said they will guarantee the right of citizens to participate and vote. What does that mean? Surely in some cases, confrontations against MAS supporters.
The other question everyone is asking at this point is: what is going to happen the day after? Since the referendum is already a fact, the people are asking what will happen afterwards.
The answer I am hearing the most is: nothing. Life will go on. The fear is that the regional government of Santa Cruz starts implementing its statutes. However, many experts say, and with much reason, that it will take time until Santa Cruz is able to start acting upon based on its statutes. The statutes make some strong claims of competencies, which are clearly at odds with the current constitution (not the government's constitution). So, for the time being, it is expected that the current constitution is still in effect. What will happen is that the government and the opposition will have to sit down and start talking. Some analysts argue that the referendum is just a strong card Santa Cruz is creating to have some weight in the negotiation process. What negotiations, you ask? Well, the very same negotiations that will have had to occur in the constituent assembly.
However, for the moment, the Santa Cruz referendum is a done deal. It means a defeat for the central government, because it tried with many means to stop it. At the same time, it means a victory for Santa Cruz, because it is gaining an ace for the bargaining coming up.