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Two more states in Bolivia vote for autonomy

  • Story Highlights
  • Voters in states of Beni, Pando overwhelmingly approve autonomy
  • Votes spotlight tensions between poor and wealthy in South American nation
  • Autonomy declarations call for steps toward a federalist model
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From Gloria Carrasco
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LA PAZ, Bolivia (CNN) -- People in two Bolivian states celebrated what they viewed as a victory Sunday night in referendums on autonomy from the central government.

Local residents of Trinidad in the province of Beni celebrate Sunday night.

The autonomy measure passed with 89 percent of the vote in the state of Beni and 85 percent of the vote in the state of Pando, according to initial exit polls.

The two popular referendums come a month after voters in the state of Santa Cruz also cast ballots in favor of autonomy. The votes highlight a dispute between the central government of President Evo Morales -- the country's first indigenous president -- and several eastern states that are rich in oil and gas reserves.

The tension also has underscored divisions between the largely poor Indians, who make up the majority and live in Bolivian's mountainous west, and the richer inhabitants -- largely of European descent -- of the eastern lowlands. Residents of eastern states have opposed the leftist president's policies on land reform and energy nationalization and his plans for a new constitution.

People sympathetic to the national government burned ballot boxes and blocked routes to some polling places in rural areas Sunday.

Ernesto Suarez, governor of Beni, said Sunday that the results sent a clear signal.

"The government has to listen to the people," he said.

The Bolivian government, however, said the vote was illegal and unconstitutional.

"There is no possibility -- none -- of recognizing these votes," said presidential aide Juan Ramon de la Quintana. He said "there is no possibility of recognizing something that does not have any legal basis."

The government also argued that the referendums are contrary to the concept of national unity. It has contended that genuine autonomy is possible but that the eastern states want to go beyond that to create what would amount to something akin to countries within a country.

Meanwhile, Morales has scheduled a nationwide vote of confidence on his rule for August 10. He predicts it will give him a new mandate and strengthen his hand against the autonomy movements.

"Personally, I have no fear of the people," he told reporters in La Paz recently. "The people should say the truth about their authorities. This is another way for the people to judge their elected officials."

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