(CNSNews.com) - Attempts by Bolivia's most prosperous region to win greater autonomy from the government of leftist President Evo Morales are part of a U.S. plot against the people of South America, according to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Morales ally.
A weekend autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz -- one of nine "departments" making up Bolivia -- sparked clashes between supporters of Morales and those backing the province's attempts to have a greater say in its own affairs.
Several other Bolivian provinces are also pressing for more autonomy from the central government.
Morales' election victory in 2005 on pledges to redistribute wealth and eliminate the "neocolonial state" was hailed by Chavez as another key step towards his vision of uniting South American leftist governments in an "anti-imperialist" bulwark against the United States. Bolivia has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the region, after Venezuela.
Since then, both leaders have seen successes and failures in their efforts to rewrite their countries' constitutions, nationalize key industries and promote their socialist agendas.
In Bolivia's case, proposed constitutional changes seek to nationalize hydrocarbon industries, give greater power to indigenous Bolivians who have long faced discrimination -- Morales is himself one -- and allow the president to seek re-election as often as he wishes.
Late last year, in sessions boycotted by the opposition, the Bolivian constitutional assembly approved a draft new constitution. In response, Santa Cruz and three other provinces announced plans to seek more autonomy.
Sunday's referendum in Santa Cruz, a move declared illegal and "secessionist" by the central government, was the latest step towards that goal.
The autonomy statute put to Santa Cruz voters would empower the resource-rich province to raise taxes, elect lawmakers and negotiate its own contracts with foreign energy companies.
Santa Cruz declared victory after the vote, but Morales dismissed the result, while saying that he was prepared to open dialogue with the governors of the pro-autonomy provinces.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey urged the Bolivian government and opposition to resolve their differences in a peaceful manner.
"We support Bolivia's unity and territorial integrity, and are committed to strengthening democracy and promoting prosperity for the Bolivian people," he said.
Venezuela's official ABN news agency in an editorial accused "the empire" -- the U.S. --of leading a campaign attempting to split provinces away from Bolivia in order to control its oil and gas resources.
Chavez in a weekly radio and television program blamed "oligarchs" and "fascists" in Bolivia for the unrest.
He accused U.S. organizations of funding "separatist movements," and expressed optimism that Bolivians would defeat attempts "to shatter Bolivia to pieces."
ABN quoted Chavez as saying that Venezuela had also been a victim of frustrated secessionist attempts.
"The CIA and its lackeys" aimed at seizing control of regional governments through illegal referendums, he said, "but we will defeat that plan through integration, political union and ideological strength."
Chavez also said an attack against Bolivia amounted to an attack against South America and against regional unity efforts currently underway, including the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) project, an initiative aimed at uniting two regional trade blocs this year into a 12-nation organization.
Chavez meanwhile faces his own ongoing political struggle, following a failure last December to win support in a referendum for his plans to rewrite the constitution - and throw out presidential term limits.
Venezuelan state and municipal elections scheduled for November will present the next opportunity for him to consolidate support across the country, and in the radio and television program he described them as "the most important" elections in Venezuela's history.
Chavez said the U.S. was backing opposition forces working to destabilize the revolutionary process underway. Specifically, he likened opposition efforts to win control of states near Venezuela's border with Colombia to "separatist" moves in Bolivia.
In the last state and municipal elections, in 2004, pro-Chavez candidates won 20 out of 22 governorships being contested.
Since then, Chavez has brought together a number of allied parties into a single United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which is in the process of being established and plans to put up candidates in the November election.
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