Bolivia: Prefect Reyes Villa Resigns After Losing Referendum

On the morning of August 12, Manfred Reyes Villa, the embattled conservative prefect (governor) of Bolivia’s department (state) of Cochabamba, resigned from office following his defeat in Sunday’s recall referendum.


Raymunda Buena, Villa Pagador

On the morning of August 12, Manfred Reyes Villa, the embattled conservative prefect (governor) of Bolivia’s department (state) of Cochabamba, resigned from office following his defeat in Sunday’s recall referendum. 

According to the National Electoral Court, with 100 percent of voting tables counted, Reyes Villa received the least amount of support of any prefect with 35 percent of votes in his favor. As of Tuesday afternoon, Leftist President Evo Morales received 71 percent support in Cochabamba and, with 80 percent of voting table counted, received 66 percent of the vote nationwide.  

The prefect announced yesterday that he would not accept the results of the Referendum, which he argues goes against Bolivia’s constitution, and would complete his full term as prefect. Though many current prefects are opponents of Morales, Reyes Villa was the only one to consistently refuse to recognize the Recall Referendum. When the Senate passed the Referendum three month ago, Reyes Villa launched a national and international legal campaign to halt it. 

Reyes Villa named Johnny Ferrel, his General Secretary, as interim prefect until new elections are held. According to Bolivia’s constitution and the law which convoked the Recall Referendum, only the President of the Republic can appoint a prefect. It is likely President Morales will not recognize Ferrel as interim prefect but will name one more palatable to his supporters. 

In his two and a half years as prefect Reyes Villa was a controversial figure. In his campaign for prefect in 2005, he ran on his reputation as an efficient public servant, an image he built as the mayor of the city of Cochabamba. He won in part because he avoided publicly locking horns with President Evo Morales’ Movement towards Socialism party (MAS).  

Autonomy Divides 

The question of departmental autonomy represents a key sticking point between the Morales government and his right-wing opponents, particularly in Bolivia’s wealthier, lighter-skinned lowlands. The autonomy movement, led by the prefects of Bolivia’s the four lowland departments, calls for the decentralization of the government bureaucracy based in La Paz and increased power for departmental governments to manage local resources and government.

 Unfortunately, many militants of departmental autonomy couple these demands with racism toward the multitude of poor indigenous migrants from other departments who have moved to the lowlands looking for work or land.  

The leadership of the autonomy movement principally comes from the prefects in the lowland departments and their respective Civic Committees, powerful organizations that represent landed and pro-business interests. For these elites, departmental autonomy goes beyond decentralization. It represents a mechanism for them to maintain their economic power in the face of President Morales’ plans to carry out land reform that would limit landholdings and force national agro-industrial monopolies to agree to “just prices” in the national market. As a geographical and ethnic middle ground between the pro-Morales high plains regions and the pro-autonomy lowlands, the department of Cochabamba has become an important theater in the ideological war over Bolivia.

In this context, Reyes Villa’s December 14, 2006 announcement of his support for “departmental autonomy,” was a line drawn in the sand. Earlier that year, 62 percent of the department of Cochabamba voted against autonomy in a nation-wide referendum.  


Maria Luisa Alvarado, City Center

Reyes Villa’s pro-autonomy declaration infuriated MAS-backers, particularly farmers and coca-growers, who demanded his resignation and took to the streets. Conflicts between MAS supporters and pro-autonomy, pro-Reyes Villa groups soon spiraled out of control. Ultimately, on January 11, two farmers and one middle-class youth were killed.

This was an important issue for Reymunda Garcia Ramirez. After voting in Villa Pagador, a poor migrant neighborhood, she told Upside Down World, "God knows I don’t support Manfred. He doesn’t have to be against the poor. In the conflicts in January 2007, why did he treat the coca-growers and farmers so badly?"

But even voters from different demographics, like María Luisa Alvarado, who voted in La Salle High School in Cochabamba’s wealthier center, had their reasons for voting against Reyes Villa. Alvarado told Upside Down World, "I don’t like corrupt people or thieves. And Manfred is the biggest corrupt thief around."

Alexander van Schaick is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Bolivia.  He can be reached at J.A.vanschaick(at)