SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia – Bolivia’s largest state voted amid scattered violence Sunday on a measure seeking greater political and economic autonomy from the government of leftist President Evo Morales, who called the vote unconstitutional.
As polls closed Sunday, exit surveys showed the referendum drawing as much as 85 percent support, though they were conducted by local news media sympathetic to the cause. No margin of error was available.
Minor clashes across Santa Cruz state injured at least 25 people during the politically charged vote, which sought to separate the state’s freewheeling capitalism and mixed-blood heritage from Morales’ vision of a communal state ruled by indigenous Andean values.
Relatives of a 70-year-old man said he was killed when police fired tear gas to break up one scuffle. The death could not be confirmed by authorities.
Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas downplayed the violence.
“This is a peaceful revolution,” he said. “A new Bolivia is reborn from our decision.”
Santa Cruz leaders want autonomy to keep a bigger slice of the state’s key natural gas revenues and to shelter vast soy plantations and cattle ranches from Morales’ plan to redistribute land to the poor.
Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, argues that he needs a strong central government to spread Santa Cruz’s wealth to the rest of Bolivia, South America’s poorest country.
Three more eastern lowland states – Beni, Pando and Tarija – hold similar autonomy votes in June. And with two other states considering similar referendums, Morales entire political project is threatened.