Bolivian Region Votes on Autonomy

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia -- Bolivia's richest region of Santa Cruz voted on greater autonomy from the central government on Sunday in a referendum that poses the biggest challenge yet for leftist President Evo Morales.

The region's conservative leaders have defied the former coca farmer by organizing the ballot, which he says is illegal. It would theoretically give them more control over taxes, policing and natural resources like fertile farmland and natural gas reserves.

Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, has called his rivals racists and separatists, and his supporters have vowed to boycott the referendum.

But a resounding "yes" vote could force him to negotiate to avert further rebellion in opposition strongholds in the east that also want more autonomy.

Sunday's vote is seen as a rejection of Morales' policies, particularly his drive to rewrite the constitution, which seeks to redistribute large estates to peasant farmers and empower Bolivia's poor, indigenous majority.

Tensions rose in the tropical region before the vote, and protesters blocked highways in Santa Cruz with burning tires and mounds of dirt late on Saturday to protest the referendum.

Earlier, peasant farmers in the Yapacani district blocked highways to prevent local authorities from setting up polling stations.

Opposition to Morales is strong in lowland Santa Cruz, home to one-quarter of Bolivia's people, one-third of its economy and about 10 percent of its oil and natural gas reserves.

Its large, European-descended population is nervous about Morales' pledges to make up for centuries of discrimination against Indians.