Yesterday, thousands of citizens in the eastern Bolivian departamento of Santa Cruz went to the polls, not to elect new leaders but to vote on a referendum demanding greater autonomy from their country’s central government, led by indigenous Aymara descendant and pillar of the Latin American new Left, Evo Morales.This controversial vote was the latest in a series of events that demonstrate profound divisions between federal authorities in La Paz and Bolivia’s eastern provinces, all of which have resisted in varying ways a government they see as threatening democracy, free markets, and (let’s be honest) their own economic prerogatives.By an overwhelming margin, citizens of Santa Cruz (or, cruceños) approved the autonomy petition. But to what end? While the referendum has certainly emerged from an impressive and largely peaceful degree of civil society mobilization, federal electoral authorities have declared the vote illegal. Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba describes it in this way on his blog: “It is as if Arnold Schwarzenegger convened a vote, without national authorization, to exempt California from the U.S. Constitution – say, in the name of higher fuel efficiency standards. How should we interpret its validity or its democratic-ness?”Meanwhile, Bolivia’s constitutional future hangs in the balance. After a lengthy but problematic Constituent Assembly process, a new Constitution was hastily approved in November 2007 by pro-government legislators in the absence of opposition politicians (who were boycotting the proceedings). Morales later announced his intention of putting the document to an up or down popular vote on May 4, and Eastern provinces responded with their plans to host referenda on autonomy. Under pressure from the courts, Morales wisely postponed the nationwide vote on the Constitution, but provinces have continued to pursue their agendas. The military has subsequently given hints that it sees the autonomy drive as a threat to internal stability. Indeed, as tensions continue to grow, not only will Morales’ long-term reform projects – good or bad – certainly be undermined, but the country itself may literally be torn apart.Psychology of a City:Santa Cruz has, by virtue of circumstances or conscious intention, become the symbolic and practical center of opposition to the government of Evo Morales. In May 2007, I was lucky enough to visit the city after spending a few days in La Paz. Some casual observations from that trip will help to contextualize events there in recent days.By contrast to La Paz – a gritty, poor, disorganized, yet charming Andean city nestled haphazardly beneath the Northwestern Bolivian altiplano – Santa Cruz is flat, warm, and somewhat sterile. Both cities are characterized by a certain distinctive Latin American chaotic quality, but with very different overtones. La Paz’s chaos speaks to its role as a hotbed of political activism and a demographic mixing bowl for Bolivians of all colors and backgrounds. There, conservatively-dressed, light-skinned professionals walk alongside young hipster kids in dated heavy metal T-shirts who themselves share the sidewalk with traditionally-dressed indigenous cholita (as they are called) women. And some of the cholitas have cell phones. Tradition and modernity clash abruptly here in a perfect visual synthesis of the kind of identity crisis Bolivian society is undergoing generally.Santa Cruz, on the other hand, is an economic boom town, driven by the hustle and bustle of manufacturing, transport, and the surrounding natural gas and agriculture industries. On the drive in to the city, I remember passing an enormous Petrobras gas station with at least 12 pumping stations. Add the palm trees, tropical climate, and I was convinced I had landed somewhere on the outskirts of Miami. While some parts of the city still resemble the rough and tumble backwater outpost Santa Cruz once was, signs of development and industry are everywhere.Stereotypes of Santa Cruz contrast its apparent “whiteness” with that of La Paz’s “indigenous” majorities, and on the whole, the city did have a much more European feel in terms of ethnic composition. Yet Santa Cruz also welcomes many indigenous Bolivians, some of whom are from the region, and others who have migrated to the area from the poorer western portions of the country in search of economic opportunity.Nevertheless, among the city’s leadership, who are, at the end of the day, the ones fueling the opposition to Evo Morales, direct European descent, foreign education, and keen Western business sense do seem to be hallmarks of their backgrounds. This is not surprising, as Santa Cruz’s natural gas resources and huge commercial agriculture outfits provide much of Bolivia’s GDP and tie it to the global economy. Indeed, the partnerships of Santa Cruz-based businesses with foreign investors (Petrobras, Repsol, etc) to help develop the area’s resources have tied the city’s psychology to the kind of international, pro-market, pro-trade attitudes that define much of the global foreign policy and business jet set.Legitimate Opposition?:Do Santa Cruz and the other Eastern provinces have legitimate grievances against the Morales government? Undoubtedly the 2005 nationalization of the natural gas industry has threatened investment prospects at a time when, under better circumstances within the country, Argentina, Brazil and other neighbors would be pounding at Bolivia’s doors for gas to remedy their own shortages. Now, many no longer view Bolivia as a reliable supplier. Perhaps less sympathetic but certainly predictable are the concerns of the commercial agriculture elites, who view Morales’ plans for land reform as a threat to their productivity and interests.But more generally, in a region where oil and gas revenues already provide a sizable percent of the Bolivian government’s entire tax take (nationwide, oil and gas revenues provide over 20% of the federal budget), there is obviously general resistance among broad sectors of the population to the notion of greater centralization, taxation, or perceived efforts to leverage the fruits of Santa Cruz’s economic success for the betterment of poorer western provinces. Cruceños, correctly or incorrectly, feel they contribute more than their share as it is to the national “pot.” It is this basic sentiment that has allowed the city’s political leaders to successfully fuel a strong provincial identity and earn the support not just of other elites but of many common citizens in their opposition to the Morales government. (For a contrast, see this piece by the Andean Information Network, which suggests that Bolivia’s richer provinces may in some cases be sitting on large amounts of unspent oil/gas revenues, and can therefore perhaps afford to support more generous redistribution.)Interestingly, as apparent as the economic imperatives at play here may be, leaders of Santa Cruz’s civil mobilizations that I met last year almost always framed their mission in terms of “democratic” principles both at the local and national levels. Key among their arguments is the notion that decentralization and local control of resources leads, empirically, to more efficient public policy outcomes. While these demands cannot help but seem like at least a partial mask for a greater fear of losing control over those resources (as one anti-Morales attorney confessed to me), national level demands such as greater transparency in government institutions and judicial independence do carry significant weight in light of the Morales’ administrations own spotty record with respect to governance.Weaved in to this complex dialectic of democratic principles and hard-nosed economic self interest is a much more troubling racial dynamic. Elites in Santa Cruz will of course publically deny that Morales’ indigenous background has anything to do with their opposition to his government. Yet in casual conversation, it quickly becomes apparent that the “cultural face” of Bolivia that Morales has put forth to the world – one that is traditional, “plurinational,” poor, and, ultimately, “indigenous” – deeply offends their sensibilities. For a group that ascribes to Western (read: democratic and capitalistic) values and that aspires to inject Bolivia into the 21st century global economy in a meaningful way, a President that expresses a desire to “industrialize the coca leaf” while undermining investment prospects in the natural gas sector cannot be seen as anything but backwards and an embarrassment. Such sentiments, of course, can easily spill over into outright racial antagonism, if they haven’t already.The road ahead for Bolivia is by no means clear. Whatever the combination of factors currently driving Santa Cruz’s opposition to the Morales government (economic motives – you judge the degree of selfishness – genuine democratic principles, racial anxiety, etc), and whatever the flaws of the Morales government itself, leaders of Santa Cruz and the other provinces of Bolivia’s media luna must reconcile their own demands to the legitimate demands of their country’s indigenous majority for real inclusion, rights, and opportunities. Perhaps some of the approaches to resolving these complex issues explored thus far by the Morales administration have been incorrect or misguided, but in a new Bolivia, where a return to the old-guard political or economic system is morally and practically impossible, leaders on all sides of the debate must learn to start building bridges, rather than erecting walls of hate and mistrust.