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AP Interview: Morales says Bolivian autonomy vote illegal, dictatorial
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    LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivian President Evo Morales insists a broad autonomy declaration by the country’s largest and richest state is ‘‘illegal,’’ ‘‘anti-constitutional,’’ and ‘‘dictatorial.’’
    And he warned Santa Cruz state leaders that using Sunday’s referendum on the measure to justify withholding revenues due his central government ‘‘would be the worst mistake they could make.’’
    But Morales dismissed fears of violence and betrayed little concern over the vote — perhaps the biggest challenge to his 2-year-old presidency — during a half-hour interview with The Associated Press at the presidential palace late Friday.
    ‘‘Seems to me like they’ve brainwashed you guys when you ask me, ’What’s going to happen?’ Morales teased a reporter while leaning forward in one of the many gold-painted chairs crowding the palace’s third-floor Golden Parlor.
    ‘‘May 5,’’ he said, referring to the day after the vote, ‘‘will be just another day.’’
    A visibly nonchalant Morales showed off a new shirt stitched with ancient Andean hieroglyphs, and teased Santa Cruz politicians for reading their speeches from scripts, while he often speaks for hours without notes.
    On the day of the vote, the president said, he’ll be at a party with more than 6,000 miners in the Andean foothills — a long distance from Santa Cruz.
    But Morales also addressed the serious threat the referendum, which is expected to pass overwhelmingly, poses to his populist reforms. He urged Santa Cruz state to continue sharing its prosperity with the rest of South America’s poorest country.
    ‘‘If they try not to send the money, it’s a clear demonstration that they’re breaking the law and (autonomy) is just a money grab,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re only in it for the money, not for the country. They’re only in it to help out a few businessmen, and not the people.’’
    Asked if the government would use force to recover its money, Morales simply quoted advice he once received from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
    ‘‘He told me, ’Evo: patience, patience, patience,’’ Morales said.
    But the president’s patience could be tried even further: Five more states, most in Bolivia’s relatively prosperous lowlands, may follow Santa Cruz’s example with their own autonomy votes.
    On Friday, Morales suggested that the question of state autonomies might best be resolved by a nationwide referendum — even though a national vote failed to resolved the issue two years ago.
    Morales campaigned ferociously against a 2006 ballot measure on autonomy, helping to spur his conservative opposition’s passion for the cause.
    The movement gained momentum last year, when Morales backers and Santa Cruz delegates locked horns over autonomy in an assembly convened to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution.
    The state delegates eventually walked out on the assembly and drew up their own rules: an autonomy declaration so ambitious it would permit Santa Cruz to sign its own international treaties.
    Morales said Friday he would be willing to work some of the Santa Cruz demands into his constitution, if voters nationwide approved.
    ‘‘Maybe we’re wrong to defend the new constitution exactly as it’s been drafted,’’ he said.
    But he made it clear that the constitution takes full precedence over any autonomy demands.
    ‘‘First the mother,’’ Morales said. ‘‘Then comes the son.’’
    Santa Cruz residents say the autonomy measure would let their state keep a bigger slice of its key natural gas revenues, while also protecting their soy plantations and cattle ranches from Morales’ proposed land redistribution.
    But the vote is as much about race as it is about money: The referendum pits Morales’ Indian backers in the western highlands against eastern Santa Cruz’s largely mestizo, or mixed-blood population.
    Each group claims to represent Bolivia — but Morales points out that mestizos, by definition, prove his argument that the South American nation is an indigenous country at heart.
    ‘‘Who among us doesn’t have Quechua or Aymara blood?’’ he said, adding that Ruben Costas, the ruddy-cheeked, mustachioed Santa Cruz governor ‘‘has Quechua blood.’’
    ‘‘Here we have this great sentiment to recover our identity,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s another cultural struggle.’’
    Morales also posed a question to his conservative opposition: Why didn’t they, during so many years in power, push more strongly for state autonomies?
    ‘‘It was in their hands,’’ Morales said. ‘‘But now, of course, it’s just to damage Evo.’’
    But Morales is not an enemy of all autonomy: He’s promised it to each of the country’s 36 indigenous groups — and some are starting to get impatient.
    Friday’s interview was interrupted occasionally by fireworks popping outside the palace, lit by a few hundred Quechua Indians wearing red ponchos who sat in the street below to demand that Morales speed up their autonomy.
    The president was unfazed.
    ‘‘There is always dialogue. That I’ve learned,’’ Morales said. ‘‘There are always solutions.’’

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