(IPS) – Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador warned of possible "contagion" in their countries by the autonomy movement in the eastern Bolivian province of Santa Cruz.
"The central plan by the CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) and its lackeys in Venezuela is to take control of regional governments to carry out illegal referendums like the one held (Sunday in favour of autonomy) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. But we will defeat that plan!" said Chávez.
He was referring to regional and local elections to be held in November in 23 states and 335 towns in Venezuela, which according to pollsters could bring advances for the opposition, which only holds two regional governments and a handful of municipalities.
On a map of Venezuela, Chávez pointed to half a dozen states in the west and southwest, along the border with Colombia, which he called Venezuela’s "half-moon" – an allusion to Bolivia’s eastern "half-moon" region, made up of the provinces of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, where pro-autonomy rightwing political and business sectors opposed to the government of indigenous President Evo Morales hold power.
"Don’t let yourselves be fooled," Correa said for his part, on his weekly radio programme. "What is happening in Bolivia is not an isolated development. It has the support of foreign countries that want to destabilise the region, and of the separatist elites from Guayaquil and Guayas (in Ecuador), and from Zulia in Venezuela."
Correa pointed out that an International Confederation for Regional Freedom and Autonomy (CONFILAR) was created in 2006 at a conference in the southwestern Ecuadorean city of Guayaquil, which was attended by pro-autonomy leaders from the province of Guayas (of which Guayaquil is the capital), the Venezuelan state of Zulia and the Bolivian province of Santa Cruz, as well as advocates of free enterprise from Guatemala and Peru.
Bolivian Ambassador to Ecuador Javier Zárate said opposition groups are coordinating autonomy referendums in several countries in the region. "We cannot believe or understand how there can be sectors or regions that want dismemberment, separation or disintegration at a time when Latin America and the world are seeking integration," he said.
But Carlos Romero, a professor of graduate studies in international affairs at Venezuela’s Central University, told IPS that "it is unfair to compare processes like the one Bolivia is experiencing to the situation in Venezuela or Ecuador."
Bolivia "has faced regional unity problems since it was founded by the independence hero (Simón Bolívar, 1783-1830), while in Venezuela democracy and unity are strong and the opposition respects the rule of law," said Romero.
The oil and cattle-rich state of Zulia, on Venezuela’s northwestern border with Colombia, was the country’s richest state in the 20th century, and stands out from the rest of the country because of its many distinct cultural expressions.
"We do not want a half-moon; we want a full moon, Venezuela as a whole, in order to take it down the route of progress and development," stated Zulia’s conservative Governor Manuel Rosales, who lost the 2006 presidential elections to Chávez by 61 to 38 percent.
In Ecuador, Carlos Baquerizo, president of the Civic Council that represents economic and political sectors in Guayas, said with respect to a possible referendum that he does not believe that a new one will be held, "because a decision here was already reached, and it must be respected."
He was talking about a vote on the matter held in 2000 in Guayaquil, considered a stronghold of the rightwing opposition to the left-leaning Correa.
Last January, thousands of people took to the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s economic capital, to demand that the 2000 referendum be included in the new constitution being drafted by the constituent assembly, in which pro-Correa delegates hold a majority.
"A decision was already reached in favour of regional autonomy in the framework of development accompanied by national unity. What Guayaquil wants has nothing to do with independence" from the rest of the country, said Baquerizo.
In Peru, journalist César Hildebrandt, a columnist with the La Primera newspaper, criticised conservative sectors that support the "break-up" of Bolivia while criticising talk of federalism in the southern Peruvian province of Puno, on the Bolivian border.
Hildebrandt warned that "the lesson of this dismemberment" is for Chávez to be careful in the case of "his rich Zulia," for Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to watch out, in the case of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, whose economic importance is growing and where the population is mainly of European descent, and for Correa to be on the alert with regard to the "rebellious and proudly coastal" Guayas.
Like other presidents in the region, Correa criticised Sunday’s autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s richest province, where voters expressed themselves overwhelmingly in favour of greater regional independence.
He referred to the vote as a "separatist attempt" by regional authorities who "represent the interests of economic elites, of whites who have never felt themselves to be part of the Bolivian people."
He also referred to "international meddling" and foreign financing "of these groups, to create problems for progressive governments, and to bring about the balkanisation of Latin America."
Chávez, meanwhile, said "there is a strong attempt by the U.S. empire and the Bolivian oligarchy to undermine the state of law and territorial integrity in that country. It is an attempt at Kosovisation (a reference to Kosovo’s declaration of independence) and a blow to all of the peoples of South America."
The governments of Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, which have acted as a group of "friends" of Bolivia to try to mediate in the crisis since the Santa Cruz referendum, issued a communiqué calling for "a broad, frank dialogue" among the main political actors in Bolivia, "with a view to the preservation of Bolivia’s democratic institutions and territorial integrity" and based on "an open, substantive agenda, without preconditions, and the establishment of a climate of peace, serenity and tolerance."
At a meeting Monday in Caracas preparatory to the May 23 summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) — formerly the South American Community of Nations — to take place in the Brazilian capital, the representatives of Bolivia and Venezuela said the new regional integration scheme "will be a cure against divisive and segregationist attempts" in the area.
In Venezuela, the state-run media, as well as the regional public TV network Telesur, provided heavy news coverage of the Santa Cruz referendum, which was portrayed as illegal, unconstitutional and destabilising.
Chávez’s right-hand man in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), political scientist Alberto Muller, who is a retired general, also said that "in Venezuela there is a plan similar to Bolivia’s."
Muller said the plan to push for autonomy for several regions, "with U.S. support is promoted by the Venezuelan opposition, and would be carried out if the opposition won a few regional governments."