Bill’s Take on Santa Cruz, Bolivia

An Andean Indigenous Immigrant Walking Through the Upper Class Suburb of Las Palmas in Santa Cruz

I just finished reading “From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales by London professor, Jeffrey Webber. The book gave me the opportunity to catch up on Bolivia since I last lived here (1999) and put some of my thoughts together in a coherent manner about life here in Santa Cruz. Although the book is geared towards academics, there is enough “real life” anecdotes and background to interest the non-academic who is already familiar with Bolivia. I recommend Webber’s book.

I also spent a lot of time with the book and thinking about Bolivia because Nadia and I are considering places for retirement. Bolivia is nice because it has much cheaper cost of living than the US and if we are on a retirement income, it will go further. The life is pretty comfortable here as well with tropical weather, low cost domestic help, and both Nadia and I love playing tennis and gardening. We do have friends and relatives down here as well as citizenship for her and our kids. There is a great private hospital here where both Owen and Ocean were born.  I also have a big interest in neotropical biology and with Santa Cruz being on the frontier of the Andes and Amazon, it is a paradise in that respect. The cons would be the crime, and the lack of intellectual and cultural stimulation and the question of the cocaine industry, and finally, an indigenous, socialist government in power for the foreseeable future. 

Bolivia is really two countries. There is the more internationally famous part – the Andes, and the lesser known eastern lowlands. My wife’s family is from Santa Cruz, the economic capital of the country and the unofficial capital of the eastern lowlands.

Bolivia overall is a very poor country. Close to 70% of the people live in poverty and  with a GDP of $974 per person, makes it one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere. It is a land-locked country in the center of South America and is one of the few indigenous nations, with almost 2/3 of the population declaring themselves as indigenous. Bolivia also has one of the biggest income differences between rich and poor, especially in land distribution.  For example, 400 individuals own 70% of the productive land while there are 2.5 million landless peasants. There are also no labor laws and the underclass is exploited with long working hours and little social benefits.

Those statistics do not show the differences, however between the two Bolivias. The Andean region consists of the western half of the country and is divided into 5 departmentos (states) which make up 2/3 of the population of Bolivia (6 of the 9 million total). The average indigenous population of the Andean region is 75%. The western Amazonian part consists of 4 departmentos, including Santa Cruz, which is the name of the state as well as the city. The 4 eastern states roughly form the shape of a half moon, hence they are sometimes referred the media luna. These four states have roughly a 25% indigenous population, with the majority being a mestizo (mix of Indigenous/Spanish).

The Media Luna states have been protesting and calling for more autonomy from the centralized Bolivia government headquartered in the Andean capital of La Paz. Hundreds of thousands of Crucenos the past few years have been gathering in the streets in the cause of this eastern lowland state autonomy. One of the biggest organizations in the autonomy movement is the Nacion Camba. The term “camba” was once a derogatory term for the eastern lowland indigenous tribes, but has changed to a self-appelation referring to the special racial mix of Spanish and indigenous blood. The people of the Media Luna States are known as “cambas.” Precisely, the Camba Nation sees autonomy as follows:

(1) the state control of 2/3 of tax revenues generated by the state

(2) the state control over natural resources  and

(3) the authority to set all polices except defense, currency, tariffs, and foreign relations

This has been a growing concern since Evo Morales was elected president. Amazingly, he is the first indigenous president in Bolivian history. It is amazing because 2/3 of the country is indigenous.  This shows the historical dominance of the mestizo/business community control of the country. When I was here in 1997-1999, Hugo Banzer, a Cruceno former military dictator, was the president.  Morales is an Aymara Indian originally from the Oruro Department. He grew up in extreme poverty and four of his six siblings died due to lack of access to proper health care. He ended up moving to the coca growing region in the Cochabomba Department and showed leadership skills to eventually lead the coca growers (cocaleros) union. With the election of Morales, and his political party, M.A.S. (Moviemento Al Socialismo) , there was a lot of concern that he would push the government in the Venezuelan model of Hugo Chavez.

Evo Morales has made many radical speeches in the international realm as well as speaking to indigenous crowds. However, his actions have not matched his words. Although he has political power, he has not taken on the business establishment of media luna, and has in fact, been very conservative in his presidency. He did strike a much better bargain with the international petroleum companies and increased revenue to the state up to 4 billion per year, by giving them a 50% royalty tax. This compares to the 18% “giveaway” negotiated by the preceding president, Gonzalo Lozado. Who by the way, was run out of country by protesting Indians in La Paz and he had to escape to Santa Cruz to avoid prison or lynching. A lot of presidents in Bolivia have been killed by indian mobs. He is exiled in the US and is wanted for corruption in Bolivia. Morales has not taken the extra revenue and put them towards social spending, and actually the percent of the government budget going towards health and education has dropped. He has invested in infrastructure and eliminated the budget. He is a darling of the IMF and World Bank! For someone with his background and the fiery speeches, I would have thought he would have tried to nationalize everything and route most of the GDP to the extreme poor like Chavez. But, he has taken a very moderate approach and with his upper class Vice President, is talking about putting socialism in place in 50 – 100 years. They also talk about an Andean-Amazonian Capitalism model, whatever that means. Morales won re-election in 2009, this was also a first in the history of Bolivia. He won with a 62% majority, the biggest in history for a presidential election. MAS also gained a majority in both the houses of congress and they have 6 of the 9 governorships. I guess he found the right mix of pleasing the capitalists with his policies and the indigenous masses with his speeches.

He should really take this majority mandate to do more for the poor. It pains me to see how good, working class citizens eke out a living. I am not only talking about subsistence agricultural peasants, but policemen, nurses, teachers, etc. Especially Evo’s strike busting stance with the teachers really disappointed me. The schools and hospitals are in a horrible state and average people, can’t make a decent living.

The big issue underneath all of this is the horrible economy of the Andean states. The mass immigration has caused problems for the media luna states, in addition to Argentina, Chile, USA and Spain. The Crucenos are characterized by many as being extreme racists. It almost feels like they are like the Boers of South Africa. They were identified with the Aparthied policies and were international martyrs. It is not quite as extreme here in Santa Cruz, but there are similarities. I’ve noticed that every time I come back, there are more Andean indigenous immigrants seeking jobs in Santa Cruz. This has generated resentment from the Crucenos. Since the 1950’s, the influx of Andean immigrants has slowly changed the character of the city.

The Crucenos are very different from the Andeans. They have an ethos of “ wealth, competition, fame, ostentatious living, with agro-industrial/petro at the top of social pyramid” according to Mr. Webber and that is in big contrast to the immigrants. These differences and the resentment it generates are manifested in many ways. The international media and the book portray the Crucenos as racist, but I don’t see them being any more racist than the Spaniards, Italians, or any other upper class Latin Americans.

The Andean immigrants are referred to as “shitty collas.” The term “colla” is traced to Kollasuyo, one of the five departments of the Inca Empire. Along with cholos and indios, all of these derogatory terms are common language with Crucenos. One anonymous elderly Crucena the other day thought that the Andean government was poisoning the fruits and vegetables to make the Crucenos sick. She said that the “indios” are not affected by the poison because they are so tough that nothing could kill them. Another example of this racism is back in the 1980’s, it was common for the upper class teenagers to get their thrills, they would go out and “patear cholos” which means to beat or kick poor indigenous immigrants. There is also some strong right wing groups, similar to soccer hooligans that formed in Santa Cruz to defend the rights of Santa Cruz and harass Andeans moving to Santa Cruz. Another joke is the statue of Christ that is located in the north of the city in the center of one of the big roundabouts. It was facing the west and it was basically saying, with his arms spread out forward, “no more cholos.”

I also think it is the same problem that affected Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia were the richer parts of the federation and much of the tax revenue went to the poorer republics like Kosovo and Macedonia. Basically, Santa Cruz and Tarija are supporting the country. Living in Serbia, I know it is possible to have very small countries, but is it ideal? I don’t know what the answer is, but it should be concentrating on figuring out why the Andean Departments are so poor and what can be done to reverse the migration trend.

UPDATE – In speaking with friends, one who works in the Cruceno government, he is quite pessimistic about the future of Santa Cruz. He sees the huge effect the narcotraffikers are having with many laboratories and fields in the department. He also hinted at the army controlling the cocaine trade and also he sees a stepping up of land reform to a Venezuelan level.

I would like to see the Media Luna states go independent and be called “Cambalandia.” This is a step further than the Autonomia movement has stated, but I don’t see a drastic change in the Andean states. Is there an organization here that promotes a break from Bolivia?

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