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Santa Cruz: Bolivia’s “Other Country”

ISSUE:  Fall 2007

In a café on Avenida Monseñor Rivero—its outdoor tables basking in the glow of a giant television—I absentmindedly leaf through the social pages of the newspaper El Deber; accounts of beauty pageants and interviews with fifteen-year-old model debutantes. Above the television a banner displays the colors of Santa Cruz. Whenever I visit this city, I’m struck by the omnipresence of the green, white and green departmental flag in discotheques, shopping malls, and people’s houses. Here, waving in the breeze, Santa Cruz flags far outnumber Bolivian national flags. You’d never see this in Cochabamba or La Paz where departmental flags fly only on local holidays.

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Young people dressed in jeans and polo shirts stroll past the planter on Monseñor Ribero chanting refrains that bristle with local pride. Nearly all have fair skin. They belong to UJC (Santa Cruz Youth Union), one of the groups most active in local politics. The UJC line never changes: stand up for departmental interests against subjugation from the West, meaning La Paz. The UJC is closely linked to the Civic Committee and the interests of Santa Cruz’s powerful economic elite. In the West, UJC is regarded as “a hotbed of fascists,” the spoiled offspring of “good families” whose defense of Santa Cruz traditions and achievements serves to disguise their contempt for Bolivia’s indigenous majorities. As seen from the West, the dream of the UJC and the far more radical Nación Camba is to secede from the rest of Bolivia.

A pair of the youngsters approaches a corner stand where pirate DVDs are on sale. The sallow-skinned saleswoman is an immigrant from the Western part of the country, a colla. I feel the tension in the air. In mid-2005, members of UJC beat up several peasants in Santa Cruz as they attempted to demonstrate in favor of a Constituent Assembly. Recently, in December 2006, in San Julián–a province in the Department of Santa Cruz and a colla stronghold— partisans of autonomy for Santa Cruz faced down peasant supporters of President Evo Morales.

The saleswoman looks worried. I get up and walk towards her DVD stand trying to look casual. I hear the youths joking among themselves and requesting a discount: they want two DVDs for twenty-five bolivianos [$3.25 US] (one costs fifteen). Cars and Superman have caught their eye. The woman relaxes, smiles, and agrees.

I return to my table. This encounter encapsulates the country’s current dilemma: the instinctive distrust between cruceños and collas. It colors relations of any sort between the two groups. For the youthful members of the UJC, for cruceños in general, the peasant immigrants to Santa Cruz are largely to blame for Bolivia’s backwardness, and not many locals have much sympathy for them. To those who revel in the city’s prosperity, Santa Cruz is the future. They fear that pro-Indian president Morales and the changes now under way in the country—may pose a threat to that future.

* * * * *

Santa Cruz is an Amazon enclave in a country used to regarding itself—and to being regarded as—“Andean.” It’s now Bolivia’s largest city with a population nearing 1.5 million. One of every four Bolivians lives in the department of Santa Cruz (In 1950 it had barely nine per cent of the national population.) It’s also the most important department in the country economically. While other regions suffer the sort of economic paralysis that makes Bolivia one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Santa Cruz keeps on growing. It generates a third of national GNP and forty per cent of all taxes collected annually. Forty-eight per cent of all foreign investment in Bolivia goes to Santa Cruz. By comparison, La Paz, the capital, gets only fifteen per cent.

Economic dynamism has made Santa Cruz an ideal destination for emigrants. Although the bulk of new arrivals are Bolivian, they are not alone. The department has thriving colonies of Argentines, Uruguayans and Brazilians who have prospered mainly in agriculture. The climate of Santa Cruz is ideal for raising soybeans and sugarcane, and low land prices make it a magnet for foreigners. There are Japanese colonies on Okinawa and Mennonite Germans in Manitoba. Years ago I was invited to a fiesta in the Brazilian colony of Santa Cruz, and its size surprised me. Cleyenne Lazarotto, a middle-class woman who moved to Santa Cruz in the mid-nineties, told me that if you looked closely, it was not hard to understand what was going on: “I sold my properties back home and with the money bought four times as much land here as I had in Curitaba.”

At the end of the last century, regional pride and economic development took off, and it became commonplace for Bolivians to say: “Santa Cruz is another country.” A remark like this implies how those in Santa Cruz see themselves in opposition to the rest of their compatriots. For example, cruceños don’t mince words; they look you in the eye and tell you what they think, while elsewhere in the country people are more circumspect when it comes to revealing their innermost thoughts. Cruceños are generous; as early as 1831 the noted French traveler Alcides D’Orbigny wrote: “They are inspired by a spirit of unequaled hospitality. Vagabonds and loafers are welcomed everywhere for months at a time and treated as part of the family.”

While the Eastern valley and the Andes are constantly struggling, Santa Cruz has a carnival atmosphere heavily influenced by Brazil’s boundless optimism and exuberance. In the Andean world scarcity is the norm; Santa Cruz is the land of plenty. Most of the players on the national soccer team are cruceños. In a word, Santa Cruz works; the rest of the country doesn’t.

As sociologist Claudia Peña says, the civic leaders in Santa Cruz have succeeded in projecting to the rest of the nation the idea that Bolivia is “the incarnation of the past” while they represent the future. The image of Bolivia in the international press is of a country that holds the world record for coups d’etats and is continually plagued by highway blockades and street demonstrations. Cruceños see themselves as the opposite side of the Bolivian coin, and they tend to put regional pride ahead of national pride.

There are times when regional pride is accompanied by gut-level repugnance towards Andean Bolivia. A statement by cruceña Gabriela Oviedo, Miss Bolivia of 2004, at the Miss Universe competition in Quito was symptomatic of this repugnance. “Unfortunately,” she said, “people who don’t know very much about Bolivia think we’re all Indians. . . it’s the image projected from La Paz of people who are short, poor and Indian. I’m from the other side of the country, the East side where it’s warm, not cold. We’re tall and white, and we know English.” The furor that erupted in the following weeks, the demands that she relinquish her crown, forced her to apologize. But the damage had been done. It fueled the distrust that many Bolivians in the West feel towards Easterners they regard as ungrateful. “When Santa Cruz was a poor department, the economy of La Paz kept it afloat,” said La Paz consultant Gustavo López. “Now that it’s taken off, not only do they refuse to share the wealth, but they turn their backs on us.”

Carlos Guardia, a Cochabamba doctor who spent ten years in Santa Cruz, says the people there are hospitable up to a point, but you’re never fully assimilated. Collas can succeed economically in Santa Cruz, but to integrate socially they must join the lodges and fraternities dominated by the cities first families. “No doubt about it,” he says. “Santa Cruz is a great place to work. When I watched the chaos in La Paz, the blocked highways and the protests, I could understand what the cruceños were talking about. Who wants to belong to a Bolivia that’s so negative?”

Ignacio Bedoya, a La Paz industrialist who moved to Santa Cruz ten years ago, told an interviewer for the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, “I’m one hundred per cent colla, but what can I say? There’s something the matter with those people, something in the atmosphere of La Paz that stifles everything. You come up with an idea, they shut down four streets, and you’re out of there. Santa Cruz has a vision that’s the exact opposite. You can see how eager people are to keep on growing.”

Middle-class immigrants from the West have thrived and made a place for themselves, but those from the lower class have had a harder time. There’s lots of opportunity to work, but there’s also resistance to the mass immigration that’s changing local traditions. The collas complain about racism but say it’s not just a problem in Santa Cruz. “Sometimes it’s worse in La Paz,” says Lino Tacon, who makes his living shining shoes. Surprisingly, many recent arrivals support autonomy. “Because we look different to them, they think we’re against them,” says Lidia Cabrera, a saleswoman in the Abasto Market. “But lots of us have now become cruceñas.”

At the middle of the twentieth century, Santa Cruz was a town of forty thousand struggling to emerge from the oblivion to which it was consigned by the government in the distant mountain capital of La Paz. The isolation of Santa Cruz was palpable: lack of adequate roads made the five-hundred kilometer (300 mile) trip to the city of Cochabamba an ordeal. The Bolivian West began to build an infrastructure of railroads in the late nineteenth century, but the effort to lay rails to Santa Cruz didn’t begin until 1904, and in 1924 it led to a revolution. Not until 1954 did the railroad reach the East.

In the forties, a plan propounded by the North American Mervin Bohan suggested that the way for Bolivia to reduce dependence on its mining economy was to develop the East. In the turbulent decade of the fifties—the years of the Paz Estenssoro national revolution—development in Santa Cruz became unstoppable. In that decade Santa Cruz campaigned to keep the central government from curtailing the eleven per cent royalty it received on petroleum sales (a right granted in 1938). Santa Cruz won that battle, but it wasn’t easy. The eleven per cent struggle is emblematic of the clash between East and West. Santa Cruz felt it had to fight for concessions from the government in La Paz and suspected with good reason that centralists in La Paz couldn’t see beyond their own navels. Strong regional sentiment in Santa Cruz is a kind of self-defense: if others look down on us, then we’ll just look after ourselves. And if others won’t help us develop, let’s think about how to develop on our own.

Throughout the twentieth century a negative stereotype prevailed of the typical denizen of Santa Cruz. Collas in the Eastern highlands and valleys regarded cambas—the peasants and rural residents of Santa Cruz—as simpletons, uncouth, and inept to boot. Up until the eighties, it was common to hear that development in Santa Cruz was largely the result of colla immigrants—trained professionals from Cochabamba, La Paz and Sucre. They did contribute to regional development, but it is untrue that immigration alone accounted for the progress of the Eastern city.

It’s hard to ignore the stereotype of Santa Cruz as uncouth and superficial. It’s true that hardly a day seems to go by without another beauty contest. There’s a Soy Queen, a Carnival Queen, a Queen of Yesteryear, and pint-sized beauty princesses. There are newspaper society pages full of models (the iconic Misses are regularly invited to parades in Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Punta del Este where they’re regarded quite literally as models, worthy of emulation). One day a cruceña friend and avid reader of Julio Cortázar told me without blushing that she was trying to save fourteen-hundred-dollars for collagen injections and the removal of two ribs to make her look thinner. Social pressure generated by stress on the beauty of cruceña women contributes to the surplus of gymnasiums in the city and anorexia among teenagers and young women.

Santa Cruz has its frivolous side, but that’s not the whole story. Santa Cruz is the Miami of Bolivia. Only a few years ago Miami consisted of nothing but beaches and shopping centers. Today its cultural appeal—prestigious art galleries like Miami Basel, a vibrant Latin music center—has made it one of the most interesting U.S. cities, the vital nexus between North America and Latin America. By the same token, Santa Cruz with its carnivals and beauty queens, its Trade Fair where beautiful women staff each exhibit, is a city in the throes of cultural consolidation. It has a film festival that is gradually making a name for itself among the major events of its kind in Latin American, a theater festival to reckon with, and a book fair growing slowly but surely. Some say nobody reads in Santa Cruz, but the city is home to La Hoguera, one of Bolivia’s major publishing houses. Not to mention, books are a prime target of the pirating market. Works by Vargas Llosa and García Márquez that sell for twelve dollars in bookstores go for three or four on any street corner.

There’s more to Santa Cruz than entertainment and culture; it’s also a major business center. The Trade Fair attracts companies from throughout the continent and turns over millions of dollars during its two-week run. Still stereotypes die hard, and, as a result, images of Santa Cruz as a city of pushy but productive people coexists next to the idea that the same people are inept and uncouth. It’s a coexistence that won’t last long. Little by little negative opinions of cambas are disappearing and being replaced by a more positive view of cruceños.

* * * * *

Cruceño regionalism contributed to its stigmatization as a hotbed of “separatists.” The West suspects that the movements favoring autonomy in Santa Cruz are simply taking the first steps on a march towards secession. Deep in their hearts, cruceños are said to feel they’d be better off outside Bolivia. But autonomy is not secession. True, there are certain far-right groups (the Camba Nation and factions within the UJC) that call for an Eastern Bolivia separate from the West, but they’re minorities. As television commentator Carlos Valverde says, cruceños consider themselves “Bolivians because they feel like it.”

Despite the centuries-long isolation of Santa Cruz that began with Bolivia’s founding in 1825, cruceños never stopped thinking of themselves as Bolivians to the core. Struggles for autonomy flared as early as the second half of the nineteenth century, but none ever raised the flag of independence. Around 1874, Andrés Ibáñez, leader of the Egalitarian Party, fought not for independence but for a federalism that would put Santa Cruz on the same footing as the major Eastern cities. Unfortunately, the central government responded shooting Ibáñez, and effectively decapitating the federalist movement. Today, cruceños pushing for greater autonomy simply seek to increase the region’s ability to determine its own fate. They make no secret of their wish to keep more of the wealth the department produces at home, but this does not mean they want to create a Republic of Santa Cruz.

However, history is full of examples of fears made real by their prediction. In a restaurant near Manzana Uno—one of the country’s major art galleries—historian Alcides Parejas Moreno warns it’s a mistake to write off the separatist impulse as nonsense. Since the rise of Evo Morales—Bolivia’s first president of Indian descent—cruceños have felt excluded from political decision making. Despite its economic weight, only one minister in the Morales cabinet hails from Santa Cruz. This discrepancy is not without historical precedent—of Bolivia’s sixty-five presidents, only three were from Santa Cruz, and yet Parejas Moreno points out that this trend has changed in the past twenty years as cruceños were increasingly named to all the top economic posts. “Even this has been lost,” he says.

Before Morales, cruceños were proud of being apolitical. They preferred to focus on what mattered most to them: economic development. But now they feel they are being officially excluded from the decision-making process and attacked by the center. Cruceños, who once kept their distance from national politics by choice, are faced with an Aymara politician who speaks for the Eastern grassroots and has no interest in listening to them.

As Parejas Moreno says, the country’s “Aymarization” by a leadership that regularly talks in terms of “us”—the Bolivian people—against “them”—the landed oligarchs of Santa Cruz—has served to further polarize an already fragmented society. The recently implemented Land Law—a sort of second agrarian reform—is seen as a direct attack by Morales on the groups that wield economic power in Santa Cruz. Morales has also mandated fluency in an indigenous language such as Aymara or Quechua compulsory for career Foreign Ministry officials, a move which looks to cruceños as a sure sign that Morales governs solely on behalf of the indigenous peoples of the East.

Those in power don’t trust Santa Cruz, but their hostility is only serving to nurture a desire for increasing autonomy, if not separatism. In December 2006, city council leaders who support autonomy attracted a crowd of nearly a million around the monument of Christ the Redeemer. Though the majority of the demonstrators favored autonomy, the chants of several youth groups calling for independence could also be heard. And the antagonism is growing. At this year’s Santa Cruz Carnival, the Pichiroses, the group whose candidate became carnival queen, called for the exclusion from the parade of folk groups from the West on grounds that they diluted the essence of an event designed to celebrate cruceña regional culture. In Montero Province, a part of the Department of Santa Cruz, municipal authorities prevented the noted cruceño muralist Lorgio Vaca from including the Aymara wiphala flag in a painting on the theme of national integration. Before a cheering throng a man destroyed the wiphala with a chisel.

In February there were more signs of conflict when the powerful Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee elected businessman Branko Marincovic as its new president. José Pomacusi, chief press officer for the Unitel television network, called the election a mistake because it heightened tensions between the national government and Santa Cruz. “Symbols are important,” Pomacusi says, “and at a time when we have an Aymara president it is not a good idea for the main civic representative of Santa Cruz to have a Croation surname.” That makes me wonder. Are my childhood friends whose parents were from Croatia, Germany and France and had names like Satt, Tadic, Bessé and Eterovic beyond the pale? Is this what we have come to? “Yes,” says Pomacusi. “Evo’s government has made it politically incorrect to have such surnames in today’s Bolivia.” In the battle of symbols, in a country where most people have surnames like Rojas and Morales and Mamani, the government wins, but Santa Cruz isn’t about to give up without a fight. In the face of charges of domination by a foreign oligarchy, Santa Cruz decides to elect as head of its civic leadership one of the most notorious representatives of that oligarchy, a powerful businessman with a foreign-sounding surname.

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On Sunday, June 9, 2006, another chapter was written in the strife between East and West. Eastern social movements succeeded in calling elections for a Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. Thanks to a movement that had its beginnings in Santa Cruz, Bolivians voted on a proposed system of autonomy for the nation’s nine departments. President Evo Morales, who had previously supported the measure, shifted his ground and wound up campaigning against it. His party, the ethno-populist MAS (Movement to Socialism) decided that, since the plan originated in Santa Cruz, it must be rigged in favor of regional oligarchs and local elites. An open struggle for power underlay this reversal. Evo Morales and MAS wanted to beef up the central government and regarded autonomy as a threat. The central government tried to demonize the proponents of autonomy and called the movement a racist attempt to divide the country. The vote for autonomy in Santa Cruz—and in three more of the nation’s nine departments—was overwhelming. Now it’s left to the Constituent Assembly to clean up the mess. With some departments voting for autonomy and others for sticking with the present centralist system, a formula to satisfy everyone must be found.

Seven months after Morales’ election and just over a year into his administration, the country has split. Popular discontent has triggered protests in the streets of Santa Cruz. Led by the region’s Civic Committee, the people have mounted a furious defense of the plan for autonomy. Civic Committees in seven other regions joined with their counterparts in Santa Cruz as have the prefects of six departments. In December 2006, opposition politicians, ordinary citizens, and noted public figures—such as Santa Cruz prefect Rubén Costas and La Paz novelist Juan Claudio Lechin, the son of legendary labor leader Juan Lechin Oquendo—mounted pickets and staged hunger strikes with nearly two thousand participants in a bid to pressure the central government. The main rallying cry of the opposition is for MAS to obey one basic rule: that any change of the laws enshrined in the Constitution must be approved by a sixty per cent majority in the Constituent Assembly. In February MAS finally dropped its demand to allow amendment by simple majority—thus eliminating the need for consensus in order to write a new constitution—and the Assembly reinstated the rule requiring approval of any change by a two-thirds majority.

Despite the concession by MAS, Santa Cruz remains on a war footing because it’s clear that MAS intends to write a Constitution with no provision for Eastern autonomy. Pressure exerted through demonstrations and hunger strikes did wring concessions from the government, including an announcement by Vice President Álvaro García Linera that autonomy would be permitted. However, the government plans to grant limited autonomy at the provincial level, instead of ceding it to the departmental capitals. This would dilute the power of the Civic Committee, the focal point for gathering anti-Morales sentiment nationwide.

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The real significance of the July election is that MAS won the most votes in Santa Cruz. It was, as journalist Leopold Vega noted, “the first electoral defeat for right-wing groups in Santa Cruz since the restoration of democracy in Bolivia in 1982.” What should we make of the victory of a supposedly anti-cruceña party like MAS in Santa Cruz? Some analysts interpret the election results as a fluke; the traditional parties had yet to recover from the catastrophic downfall of ex-President Sánchez Lozada in 2003. However, others believe cruceña politics have undergone a major realignment. Leftist politician Jerjes Justiniano suggests that a mass movement has sprung up in opposition to the traditional power structure linked to the right-wing business class.

Analyst Martín Rapp agrees with Justiniano but goes a step farther: “The problem for Santa Cruz lies in assuming that Evo is going to fall before long and that everything will return to normal, just like before. People don’t realize that, no matter how long Evo lasts, or doesn’t last, nothing will be the same once he’s out of power.” Rapp points out that the prefect of Santa Cruz has begun talking about such indigenous groups as the Chiriguanos who inhabit low-lying provincial areas. “That didn’t happen before Evo. The current situation is forcing changes in the balance of power in Santa Cruz, and there’s no acknowledgment that the agent of change is Evo.”

It’s not just Evo. Constant East-to-West migration has changed Santa Cruz. It’s no longer the late nineteenth-century city whose leading intellectuals—Nicómedes Antelo, Gabriel René Moreno—dismissed indigenous groups as “a stain on progress” and dreamed of their extinction “the way the dodos went extinct.” Nor is it the city inhabited by tall, white Anglophones that Miss Bolivia described in 2004. As Alcides Parejas says, a mixing process is under way in Santa Cruz, “the fruits of the marriage of the Andean and cruceño worlds that results in something different, the new cruceño.” The response of this new cruceño to the pro-Indian, ethno-populist politics of MAS is not quite the knee-jerk rejection widely regarded as normal in Santa Cruz.

MAS has a foothold in Santa Cruz. It did relatively well in the city, but most of its support came from rural areas such as San Julián and Yapacaní where Western migrants predominate. Claudia Peña says that the line taken by the urban elite in Santa Cruz used to be accepted as a reflection of opinion throughout the department. Now that homogeneity has ceased to exist, a split has developed between the city and the countryside. It’s clear that Santa Cruz’s spectacular progress has widened the income gap between haves and have-nots. The city has urban residential districts to rival the better areas of Miami, but there is also Plan Tres Mil, one of the most densely populated barrios in the country with one of the weakest infrastructures. It isn’t surprising that this new Santa Cruz is fertile territory for MAS. Evo Morales insists his attacks are aimed not at Santa Cruz but at the city’s tightly knit power structure and the business leaders who control the Civic Committee and own the vast fields where soybeans and other agroindustrial products are grown.

One of the top MAS leaders in Santa Cruz is Oswaldo “Chato” Peredo. Born in 1941, he is the brother of Coco and Inti, two legendary guerrilla followers of Che Guevara who were both killed in the 1960’s. Chato also joined the guerrilla movement and was arrested, but he survived and was released by leftist president J.J. Torres. Now, Chato is a doctor. I visited him in his office between the third and fourth rings of Santa Cruz. The name of the clinic where he works is “Pre-Vida,” and I’m unclear as to what the name alludes to. In his office volumes of the complete works of Lenin outnumber medical texts. I take my seat on a comfortable sofa and note the presence of a bed where, I imagine, Chato takes a nap from time to time. In the doorway are posters of Simón Bolívar and photos of his brothers posing with Che.

Chato, as his name would indicate, is short with a face tanned by the years. His eyes dart constantly about the room, and his mustache is flecked with gray. I ask him if it’s hard to be a leader of MAS in Santa Cruz. “Of course,” he replies. “They tried to kidnap me twice. And they taunt my eight-year-old daughter in school. But she knows how to look out for herself, and she blames everything on the neoliberals.”

I ask Chato if it’s not a mistake for Evo, having done so well in Santa Cruz in the last elections, to be so critical of the city. “Of course it is,” he says with no qualms about self-criticism. “We’ve lost the middle class. Today I don’t know if we could get twenty per cent of the vote.”

Chato says MAS will know how to learn from its mistakes, and the first step will be to embrace as its own the idea of autonomy. “Autonomy is coming, but not the way the cruceña elite wants it to. Autonomy will come at the provincial level for the indigenous groups and social movements.” As a good man of the sixties, he says the cruceña elite is controlled by the United States, that the secessionist movement in Santa Cruz is the work of Yankee imperialism. “The North Americans would like to see an independent Santa Cruz where they could have a military base from which to operate in the heart of South America.”

Chato is the coordinator for the Cuban doctors who arrived in Bolivia in recent months as a token of Fidel Castro’s support for Evo and his regime. There are some five hundred of them in Santa Cruz working mainly in rural areas, he says. I ask if this means Bolivia is relinquishing a bit of sovereignty by employing so many foreign doctors. Chato’s reply is that, unlike Bolivian doctors, the Cubans don’t charge for their services, and they’re willing to work in the most remote parts of the country. “Bolivian doctors are spoiled; they only want to work in the city.” He goes on to say that the sovereignty argument is easy to make but flawed. “Some people and the media get upset because the doctors fly the Cuban flag at their workplaces, but I remind the critics that all the North American aid projects, such as USAID, come with U.S. flags. If we get aid from the United States, then why not from Cuba?”

On my way out I ask what kind of medicine he practices. In Cuba, he says, he studied to be a combat medic for the guerrillas, but at present he’s doing regression psychiatry. Using hypnosis and other methods, Chato gets patients to “regress” to key moments in their past and even before their past (hence the name “Pre-Vida”). To cure an illness it’s crucial to “regress” to the moment when the illness began. Somewhat skeptical, I asked how many patients he had. “Fifteen hundred,” he told me with a straight face. As I left I saw no patients, just a pair of politicians waiting to talk to Chato.

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One evening I accompanied Maximiliano Barrientos, a journalist who covers cultural affairs for El Deber—the main daily in Santa Cruz and the paper with the highest circulation on Bolivia—to the district of Villa Primero de Mayo. It’s an area settled by provincial cruceños and collas. As Santa Cruz expanded, new avenues were built in concentric rings emanating from the city center. The first three rings reveal a city in control its growth, but after that each one is more chaotic than the one before. Paved thoroughfares gave way to treacherous dirt streets with abundant potholes as we neared Villa Primero de Mayo. Maxi was not acquainted with this Santa Cruz that spread beyond the reach of public utilities, the mayor, or the prefect. I asked Maxi how was it possible that a reporter for the city’s main newspaper would be unfamiliar with the area. He smiled and reminded me that our taxi driver refused to take us to our original destination, Plan Tres Mil, “because it’s already getting dark and I don’t advise going there, there are too many bad people around.” It seems only police reporters cover these areas. Perhaps this was still the way culture was defined in Santa Cruz. Culture was what happened in the city’s two inner rings—art galleries, bookstores, theaters. With Evo in power, even the traditional definition of culture is questionable.

We proceeded to a street lined with chicherías—bars and restaurants that served chicha, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting corn. Chicherías remind immigrants from the West of home and mean a lot to them, but for many cruceños they’re an affront to regional identity. It’s common to read in the newspaper that the mayor’s office has shut down a chichería on some pretext or other.

The taxi driver left us with a warning to be careful. We entered the busiest chichería. Atop a wooden platform five long-haired musicians played Eastern songs on electric guitars while more than twenty couples made their way around a large dance floor. There was an occasional Eastern face, but they overwhelming majority were distinctly colla. For a moment I felt as if I were in La Paz or Cochabamba.

There were only beer bottles on the tables. Near the door an old woman sold tickets in exchange for drinks. She wore long braids and a petticoat—traditional Indian garb—and I asked her if they had chicha. She told us the mayor’s office only permitted chicha sales on weekends. The city ordinance implied the reluctance of Santa Cruz to make the drink its own. Come back on the weekend, the woman told us, the chicha here is the best. I asked where it was brewed. She replied with an indulgent smile. “In Cochabamba, where else?” she said. “The only good chicha come from Cochabamba.” I asked her if she was a colla from Cochabamba. She acknowledged being from Cochabamba but said she was not colla but “valluna”, someone from “the valley.”

José Pumacusi told me that in his house the children were unfailingly taught that all Bolivians were equal but that it was an uphill battle. One day his five-year-old daughter came in from kindergarten and gravely announced: “Daddy, they say the collas are coming to Santa Cruz to kill us. Is that true? I don’t like the collas!” I thought back to Chato Paredo’s daughter. Today Bolivian children learn about politics in a hurry while growing up in an atmosphere of racial and regional insults and confrontations.

The band played the unofficial Santa Cruz anthem, a taquirari entitled “Viva Santa Cruz.” Everyone in the chichería joined in with gusto. When the song ended, the master of ceremonies asked who was from Cochabamba. Almost everyone raised a hand.

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At a kiosk in Villa Primero de Mayo I bought a CD entitled “Autonomy, Damn It.” It had the shield of Santa Cruz on the cover and featured songs such as “Autonomy for Change,” “Yes, Yes, Yes, I’m for Autonomy,” “Autonomy Is Here,” and “The Lion Wakes.” Many allude to an event in the fifties that has become a kind of urban legend; during the Paz Estenssoro revolution, the government sent its indigenous militias into Santa Cruz. Today people talk fearfully about “the fifteen thousand Indians” who terrorized Santa Cruz, looting stores and raping women, and how history could repeat itself at any moment. But now cruceños are ready to confront the indigenous “conquerors.” The song’s refrain doesn’t mince words: “With courage and determination we’ll make them respect us, we are a brave race and proud of our region.”

Ever since the 1781 siege of La Paz by the Aymara leader Tupac Catari, the specter of “race war” has stuck firmly in the minds of La Paz residents: the moment when, after centuries of white oppression, the country’s indigenous people rise up to demand their rights and get rid of the whites. At the start of the twenty-first century, that specter of fear and violence has come to Santa Cruz. In January 2007, clashes in Cochabamba between coca-growing peasants supporting Evo Morales and their adversaries from the middle-class left two people dead. Peter Lewy, owner of the Lewylibros bookstore, told me, “The feeling here is that we must follow the example of Cochabamba. If they come we’ll have no choice but to defend our city in the streets.”

The CD ended with hymns to Santa Cruz, the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee, and the cruceña flag.

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The “pure” Santa Cruz of yesteryear, of white skin and gentile customs, no longer exists, if it ever did. Migrants pour in, barrios spring up overnight, and customs change; there are now more than a hundred chicherías in the new barrios. The millionth resident of Santa Cruz was a baby born to Aymara migrant parents from Oruro. Santa Cruz is increasingly complex. Now, poverty-stricken barrios with cracked asphalt and flooded streets huddle between the upper-class quarters of Urbarí and Las Palmas. Now subdivisions offering private security and sophisticated surveillance systems have proliferated far from the city center. At the Pirai River you can savor such regional cruceño dishes as duck jerky (majao) in a corn-base broth called somó. At Casa del Camba, a restaurant that is a stronghold of Santa Cruz culinary identity, a highly spiced chicken offering is nothing more than a renamed dish popular in La Paz (sajta de pollo) and in Cochabamba (picante de pollo).

* * * * *

Santa Cruz’s economic heft is obvious on the taxi ride back to the airport, driving along an avenue lined with motels and lavish strip clubs, above us, billboards advertise Mastercard and American Airlines. Santa Cruz’s political clout is significantly less apparent. Could this change? Martín Rapp told me cruceños are hard workers, merchants, and businesspeople by nature, but this mindset makes it hard for them to get a feel for the rest of the country. “They don’t have an ideology that frames their sense of what Bolivia’s actually like, they think in terms of events and turning points,” as opposed to those in La Paz, where “the national university is highly politicized and the MAS leaders running the government are highly charged ideologically.” In the past, Santa Cruz has produced great regional leaders to defend departmental interests, but none has developed into a national figure.

Only recently has Prefect Rubén Costas, a dynamic and atypical cruceño leader, entered the scene. He has insisted on the singing of the Bolivian national anthem at major civic gatherings in Santa Cruz and on a prominent display of the Bolivian flag. He has garnered increasing attention nationwide by opening dialogue with leaders in El Alto, Bolivia’s most predominantly indigenous city and a major stronghold for Evo Morales. He seems to be moving towards a measure of compromise between the autonomy movements in Santa Cruz and the central government. It is not enough for the cruceños to complain about Morales’ forced “Indianization” of Bolivia; it is not possible to cut Santa Cruz off from that inexorable national movement. At this turning point, Santa Cruz has to reconcile civic and regional enthusiasm with a national future. It should preserve the positive cruceña identity which set it apart as “another country,” while sharing those characteristics to forge a progressive Bolivian consciousness.

Translated by Chandler Thompson.


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