Evo Morales climbed into his presidential jeep, ducking a barrage of sticks, debris and insults thrown from members of right wing civic groups in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Cameramen and livid activists chased him until police filled the streets with tear gas. Bolivia‘s first indigenous president, a former coca grower and self-described anti-imperialist, was not welcome in Santa Cruz.
This took place in September, 2006 when Morales arrived uninvited to a celebration of the city’s founding. Upon leaving, he ran into a sector of Bolivian society that poses one of the biggest challenges to his administration: the leading opposition party, Poder DemocrÃ¡tico Social (PODEMOS), the ComitÃ© CÃvico Pro-Santa Cruz , and the UniÃ³n Juvenil Crucenista. A look at these three groups provides important contextual information on the division in Bolivia between the socialistic Morales administration, and the neoliberal right based in Santa Cruz. It was this division which erupted in violence in Cochabamba during January 10-11, leaving two dead and over one hundred wounded.
Santa Cruz is one of the four departments in Bolivia which voted for autonomy from the central government in a referendum in July, 2006. These pro-autonomy departments-Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija -form a bloc of political leaders and citizens that position themselves against the Morales administration, both in the assembly to rewrite the constitution and in the streets. The autonomy they are working toward is in opposition to the nationalization of resources and redistribution of wealth pushed by Morales. These departments make up what is called the media luna, or half moon, for their geographical shape. Of these departments, the right wing groups in Santa Cruz are the most militant and powerful, the dark side of Bolivia‘s half moon.
Santa Cruz is an economic powerhouse which supports around 45 percent of Bolivia‘s economy. Though the department’s capital of the same name is known around the country as a shiny, rich city, poor working class communities are everywhere, in between high rises, malls, and well kept plazas. One carpenter, 37-year-old Mario Colque, migrated to Santa Cruz from PotosÃ to find work. He rubbed his calloused hands together while speaking of the racism he has been met with in the city as an outsider: “There is no heart here. You have to be begging on the ground in order for someone to toss you a coin-if they feel like it-if they don’t they’ll kick you instead.”
One hotel manager-who asked that his name not be used here-typified the kind of anger that Colque has come up against. Though he was born in Tarija, Bolivia , the manager spent time in the US and spoke perfect English. He referred to Vice President Garcia Linera as a “queer,” said the Morales administration as full of inept “indians” and didn’t believe the MAS would last longer than a year in power. “The same people that put Morales in the government will take him out,” was his prophecy.
It was the hotel manager who explained where I could find the ComitÃ© CÃvico Pro-Santa Cruz, an organization closely linked to the department’s businesses and right wing politicians which spearheaded the autonomy movement. The headquarters are located in one of the wealthiest parts of the city. Inside the infamous building were photos of the autonomy movement’s victory rallies, awards, and framed slogans such as “If you don’t have anything to do, don’t do it here: dignified work.” The journalists that stopped by were friendly with those in the Comite, some even making dates and plans to meet for drinks and a family barbeque.
In the press conference room, which had a sickly olive green carpet and reeked of men’s cologne, the ComitÃ©’s mustachioed president, German Antelo spoke into a dozen TV cameras about how the MAS was trying to divide the country with blockades and protests, pressuring the Bolivian people into supporting their government. Antelo said his organization was for legality and democracy, not the dictatorial ways of the MAS. His smooth, well-formulated speech thinly veiled the anger he almost let boil over when speaking of his own righteousness. “We don’t use scare tactics,” he explained, saying the ComitÃ© consisted of hard working Bolivians. The journalists nodded their heads and turned off their cameras on cue.
The other powerful group in Santa Cruz is the political party PODEMOS. Senator Jorge Aguilera repeated the stance of the ComitÃ© against the MAS and suggested that perhaps Morales and Linera are following the path that they are with the startling assertion that “they don’t have families and so don’t value human life.” Ruben Cuellar Diario, the constituent assembly leader for PODEMOS, spoke about MAS’s desire to keep power centralized, instead of supporting autonomy. He said Morales believes that “poverty shared is better.”
If PODEMOS and the ComitÃ© CÃvico Pro-Santa Cruz are the mouths and faces of the Santa Cruz business elite and autonomy movement, the youth organization, UniÃ³n Juvenil Crucenista, is the group’s brass knuckles. Whereas PODEMOS and the ComitÃ© go after the left in rhetoric and economic policies, the UniÃ³n Juvenile has been known to beat and whip campesinos marching for gas nationalization, throw rocks at students organizing against autonomy, toss molotov cocktails at the state television station, and brutally assault members of the landless movement struggling against land monopolies. The UniÃ³n is a younger, less polished version of the ComitÃ©. Though leaders claim to be independent of the ComitÃ©, their headquarters are located right behind the ComitÃ©’s building, and many youth members go on to join the ComitÃ©.
I sat down with two of its leaders in an office with comfortable sofas. Though the air conditioning was on, they left the door opened, a move I could only interpret, in poor Bolivia, as a sign of opulence and waste. Wilberto Zurita, the vice president of the UniÃ³n Juvenile, sat next to me. He had new jeans, slicked back hair, a nice watch, sideburns, and a cell phone, which rang regularly throughout our conversation. He studied civil engineering and now works in the construction industry. His collegue, Alfredo Saucedo, is in the UniÃ³n’s public relations department. He studies law and wants to get into politics. Both are 31-years-old, four years from a forced retirement from the UniÃ³n, and becoming part of the ‘old guard.’
I asked about some of the complaints of violence on the part of the UniÃ³n. Though they said those were rumors planted by the left, they did admit they were willing to take up arms to defend Santa Cruz from what they saw as a kolla-derogatory term which generally refers to campesino or indigenous people-invasion. They saw the Morales administration as a threat which powered their desire for autonomy. “When we have to defend our culture by force, we will,” Saucedo said. “The defense of liberty is more important than life…Here in this department people will do anything to defend liberty.” When asked if a military coup against Morales might be necessary, both said no, yet Zurita seemed particularly nervous about the question, shaking his knee up and down in response. They openly criticized campesinos who “just in order to save money, didn’t bathe or change their clothes regularly.” They said cambas-generally light skinned, wealthy Santa Cruz city dwellers and large land owners-were friendlier and cleaner than kollas.
Both Zurita and Saucedo helped spearhead the movement for autonomy and felt disconnected from the Bolivian culture outside of Santa Cruz. Saucedo admitted he doesn’t “want to have anything to do with Pachamama [Mother Earth] and all that. We don’t even know what Pachamama is.” Even so, they seemed to understand that the same racism they exhibited was dividing Santa Cruz. “We are probably at the beginning of where you were in the US before the civil rights movement with whites and blacks,” Saucedo said. When I asked about the meaning of the cross on UniÃ³n Juvenil ‘s banner, Zurita told me, “It’s not a Nazi symbol.” I told him that I hadn’t asked if it was a Nazi symbol. They were already on the defensive. “We aren’t racist,” he said.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, forthcoming from AK Press in March, 2007. He edits TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. Email: Ben(at)upsidedownworld.org