Voters in this restive Bolivian province go to the polls today in a bid for greater autonomy that is a direct challenge to the leftist government of President Evo Morales.
The president calls the election an illegal maneuver by wealthy "oligarchs" intent on breaking away from Bolivia and creating a pro-U.S. protectorate in the country's resource-rich eastern lowlands.
But supporters say the balloting is meant to preserve regional rights in the face of what they call a march toward authoritarianism and expropriation of private land. They expect autonomy to strengthen their hand with the federal government on thorny issues such as land reform, distribution of natural gas royalties and a new constitution.
"We are not separatists. We are loyal Bolivians," said congressman Walter Javier Arrazola, a pro-autonomy lawmaker in Santa Cruz. "But we don't believe in Evo Morales' 'neo-communist' plan for our country."
Bolivia has become a key battleground in the ideological tug of war between the Bush administration and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a key ally of Morales. Like Chavez, Morales has nationalized key industries, assailed alleged U.S. meddling and sought to rewrite his country's constitution.
Chavez has labeled Bolivia's autonomy vote "Operation Kosovo," referring to the breakaway former province of Serbia. He and Cuba's Fidel Castro have said Bolivia faces a grave danger of breakup.
Morales has publicly alleged that the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, Philip Goldberg, heads a "conspiracy" to oust him.
U.S. officials deny abetting any plot to topple the democratically elected Morales, who rose to prominence representing growers of coca, from which cocaine is made.
Washington says it supports Bolivia's territorial integrity.
"We are committed to the territorial unity of all the countries of the region," the State Department's top Latin America diplomat, Thomas Shannon, said in an interview published Friday in the Madrid daily El Pais. "At the same time we are in favor of the expression in a democratic manner of the interests of the different groups and sectors."
Polls indicate the autonomy measure will pass by a wide margin, perhaps garnering as much as 70% of the votes in Santa Cruz, home to about 2.5 million of Bolivia's 9 million people. Anti-autonomy leaders are urging residents to abstain from voting.
Both sides have pledged to avoid violence. Similar autonomy votes are scheduled in three other provinces in the next few weeks.
Autonomy would allow Santa Cruz and other regions to function somewhat like U.S. states, with separate police forces, legislatures and a say in the distribution of funds such as hydrocarbon royalties that now go to the government in La Paz, the capital. That would be a marked change in highly centralized Bolivia and could dilute the power of Morales and future presidents.
The autonomy movement has taken off in relatively prosperous lowland provinces, where much of the nation's agricultural wealth and vast natural gas reserves are concentrated.
The dispute underscores deep divisions between the subtropical lowlands and the chilly and largely impoverished Andean high plains that constitute Morales' base.
The regional divide has a strong ethnic backdrop: Morales, of Aymara Indian heritage, has championed the cause of fellow indigenous highlanders, long treated as second-class citizens in Bolivia.
But Andean Indians are less prominent in Santa Cruz and other lowland zones, where the population consists of a broad mix of people with indigenous, European and other bloodlines. Each side has accused the other of recklessly dealing the race card.
Morales calls himself a champion of indigenous rights, but critics here say he is fostering a volatile struggle of race and class in South America's poorest nation.
"Evo Morales is setting one group against another," said Arrazola, the pro-autonomy Santa Cruz congressman. "This is a dangerous path for Bolivia."
Supporters say autonomy will bring economic benefits, reducing the continued flow of Bolivians abroad, especially to Europe and Argentina.
"Our enemy is poverty," said Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas. "And we want to try to defeat it."