SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Dec. 22 — If anything captures the growing tension between La Paz, the capital, and this flourishing city in the eastern lowlands, it is an alarming photomontage people send to one another’s cellphones showing President Evo Morales with a gunshot wound to the head and the words “Viva Santa Cruz” scrawled above him in blood.
The image has become a symbol of the rift between Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian who after one year in office is celebrating populist feats like energy nationalization and the start of an ambitious land reform plan, and the conservative political and business elite of Santa Cruz, who speak of a country on the cusp of being torn asunder.
“We’re turning into another Zimbabwe, in which economic chaos will become the norm,” said Branko Mavinkovic, the president of a cooking oil manufacturer and one of Bolivia’s richest men. “Evo wants to create a situation where we’re driven to civil war,” he said, speaking English with a light Texas twang he picked up at Southern Methodist University.
Bolivia remains far from such a dire predicament. But pressure for more political
autonomy in Santa Cruz and neighboring eastern provinces is the most pressing challenge to Mr. Morales’s government.
This city of 1.3 million people, with its beauty contests, overflowing discothèques and dynamic business culture, seems to gaze not westward toward the Andes for its inspiration but east, to the industrial powerhouse of Brazil.
Scenes of extreme poverty stand in contrast here with the construction of garish new headquarters of corporations from Brazil, Europe and the United States.
One million people flooded the main avenues here this month to protest an effort by Mr. Morales’s supporters to amend the Constitution with a simple majority vote instead of a two-thirds majority.
Protesters have painted the phrase “Evo, Chola de Chávez” which loosely translates as “Evo, Chávez’s Indian Woman,” on walls throughout this city, a reference to Mr. Morales’ tightening alliance with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
It is no surprise that many Bolivian supporters of Mr. Morales view Santa Cruz as a redoubt of racism and elitism.
After students pelted his motorcade with rocks when he visited here last month, Mr. Morales expressed his disdain for some of the region’s political and civic leaders who were on a hunger strike by saying they were doing so because they had grown “very fat.”
Venezuela’s influence in Bolivia has added to the tension. Julio Montes, Venezuela’s ambassador to Bolivia, said this month that Venezuela would consider military intervention on behalf of Mr. Morales in the event of a crisis. Mr. Montes also said Venezuela would finance 20 border posts, including 2 at major trade routes in the east — plans that inflamed Mr. Morales’s critics here.
“We do not want a Communist state shoved down our throats,” said Carlos Dabdoub, chief spokesman for the Santa Cruz civic committee and a candidate for vice president last year, explaining that eastern provinces were seeking political autonomy similar to that of certain regions in Spain.
While much attention has focused on political and cultural differences, at the heart of the dispute is control over proceeds from the extraction of natural resources like iron ore, timber, oil and, above all, natural gas. The state of Santa Cruz produces almost half of Bolivia’s tax revenues while it has about a fifth of the population.
Bolivia’s government has had a $500 million revenue windfall after exerting more government control over the energy industry this year. Most of the gas is extracted and processed in another eastern state, Tarija, and Santa Cruz.
“The east wasn’t clamoring for autonomy when the mineral wealth was in the tin mines of the Bolivian highlands,” said Jim Schultz, a political analyst in Cochabamba. “Strip away the rhetoric on both sides and this is about who controls the gas revenues.”
Autonomy advocates for Santa Cruz often say their differences with La Paz go back to the colonial era, when affairs in the highlands were managed from Lima, and the lowland plains were linked to royal representatives in Asunción.
Of course, Santa Cruz’s reality these days differs from its history. An impressive economic expansion that started 50 years ago, when Santa Cruz had just 50,000 residents, has attracted hundreds of thousands of inhabitants from throughout Bolivia, many of them indigenous migrants. Many people in Santa Cruz support Mr. Morales’s efforts to promote indigenous cultures and exert more authority over the traditional elite here.
“When the oligarchs ask for autonomy, that means they’re finally losing some of the power they’ve had for the last 180 years,” Silvestre Saisari, a prominent land rights advocate here, said in an interview.
Even Mr. Morales’s market-oriented critics acknowledge that the nationalization announced in May has gone better than expected, at least for now. Foreign energy companies from Brazil, France and Spain agreed to stay in Bolivia and cede control of operations after Argentina recently said it would purchase large amounts of gas for three times what Bolivia had been receiving for its exports.
Carlos Alberto López, an independent energy consultant, said the new arrangement would allow the companies to remain profitable in Bolivia even as the government struggled to manage the industry with a national oil company that was still short of qualified technicians and engineers. “Evo’s been very lucky when it comes to energy,” Mr. López said. “He’s been able to portray the nationalization as a political masterstroke.”
Indeed, Mr. Morales’s nationwide approval ratings have climbed to 62 percent after falling as low as 50 percent in October, when his government appeared stymied after more than a dozen miners died in clashes with the police. In Santa Cruz, his approval rating is 35 percent.
Comparisons to Zimbabwe aside, much of Mr. Morales’s popularity is tied to the strength of Bolivia’s economy, which is expected to grow more than 4 percent this year, an impressive performance for a country that remains the poorest in South America.
A write-off of Bolivia’s debt with foreign lenders and prudent management of the economy have resulted in a 6 percent budget surplus, allowing Mr. Morales to move ahead with social welfare programs like one that provides poor families with a modest stipend if their children remain in school.
“We’re witnessing the best economic conditions in Bolivia in the last 45 years,” said Gonzalo Chávez, an economist at Catholic University in La Paz. “It’s hard to envision civil war in this environment.”