Morales faces autonomy votes in two more Bolivian states

Bolivians in two opposition-controlled states voted Sunday on autonomy referendums that aim to insulate a wide swath of the country's eastern flatlands from President Evo Morales' populist reforms. Morales' quest to empower Bolivia's long-oppressed Indian majority has alienated the east's more mixed-race population, fueling old regional grudges against a government centered in the western capital of La Paz. The referendums were expected to pass easily in both of the Amazonian states of Beni and Pando. State leaders hailed the measure as the latest step in a growing decentralization push that opposition groups hope will provide a counterbalance to Morales' leftist federal government. "Today we want to cut the umbilical cord," Beni governor Ernesto said after casting his vote in the Beni capital of Trinidad. "We are now in a process of autonomy, and this process is irreversible." Deep regional ties have allied rural Beni and Pando - among Bolivia's poorest states - with their wealthy neighbor Santa Cruz, Bolivia's second most-populous state and a hotbed of anti-Morales sentiment where 86 percent of voters opted for autonomy earlier this month. Morales has dismissed all three referendums as illegal "surveys" conducted by conservative opposition groups hoping to cripple his government.