Oil Report

INTERVIEW-Bolivian autonomy leader calls Morales a 'puppet'

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, May 2 (Reuters) - The leader of a growing autonomy movement in eastern Bolivia on Friday accused President Evo Morales of taking guidance from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the region’s most vocal leftist leader.

Branko Marinkovic, an influential businessman who is behind a Sunday autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest region, said Morales was governing the country according to outdated communist models such as Cuba.

People in Santa Cruz will vote on whether they favor greater independence from the central government including control over local government, taxes, courts, police and natural resources. The central government says the autonomy vote is illegal.

“Unfortunately there has been too much meddling,” Marinkovic told Reuters in an interview.

“It is worrying to Bolivians that Chavez is the one who has to make our decisions,” he said.

The referendum is widely seen as a vote on Morales’ leftist reform agenda and will likely pass on Sunday because opponents have pledged to boycott the balloting. If less than half of eligible voters turn out, the poll could be seen as lacking legitimacy.

Bolivia is South America’s poorest country and has a long history of political instability. The autonomy vote could deepen divisions between the affluent east and the poor western areas of Bolivia, where most of the population is Indian.

Three other regions in the east of the country are also planning their own autonomy votes. Bolivia’s departments have traditionally had very limited autonomy. Governors, or prefects, are appointed by the president.

“Morales must realize we are talking about two thirds of the country here, a majority of the country that wants autonomy,” Marinkovic said in his well-appointed offices in downtown Santa Cruz, the capital of the department and Bolivia’s most populous city.

“President Morales needs to understand that he is president to all Bolivians and that it shouldn’t be Chavez or (U.S. President George W.) Bush or (Cuban ex-President) Fidel Castro that solves Bolivia’s problems.”

Chavez is a vocal critic of U.S. policy.

Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and a champion of Indian rights. He nationalized the energy industry and also plans a constitutional rewrite and agrarian reforms that could break up some of Santa Cruz’s giant ranches.

Santa Cruz is home to a quarter of Bolivia’s 9 million people, and accounts for a third of its economic output due to its rich farmlands and extensive natural gas fields.

Critics say Marinkovic and other landowners are just trying to protect their personal economic interests.

But Marinkovic, who owns a successful soy oil business, says Crucenos, as people in Santa Cruz are called, just want more control over how they manage and benefit from their own resources.

Morales and his left-wing allies in Latin America decry the vote as an attempt by the rightist opposition to destabilize the government. (Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Eric Walsh)