Bolivia’s racial, geographical divide sharpens with shots in air and talk of civil war (10/1/07)
By Dan Keane, Associated Press Writer
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (AP, 10/1/07) — Miguel Roda fires four shots into the palm trees and imagines a civil war.
“We will spill our last drop of blood, comrades!'' he shouts to a few dozen supporters gathered in a city plaza. “We will defend Santa Cruz inch by inch, street by street and town by town!''
The enemy, to this black-bereted, revolver-toting Bolivian, is his leftist president, Evo Morales. Roda's dream: to revive the Bolivian Socialist Falange, an ultranationalist party that was strong in the 1950s and then dormant for decades.
Civil war may seem unthinkable, but in Santa Cruz, a lowland city and anti-Morales stronghold, the appearance of Roda's fringe group reflects the alarm gripping the white elite. Morales' reforms are popular among his fellow highland Indians, but take dead aim at the frontier capitalism practiced in Santa Cruz state.
Old regional and racial rivalries, many Bolivians believe, are deepening the split.
“The elite feel absolutely violated by the changes taking place in Bolivian society,'' says Jose Mirtenbaum, a sociologist at Gabriel Rene Moreno University in Santa Cruz. “The situation here is very emotional, and very irrational. But as the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.''
Since his election 21 months ago, Morales' program has met fierce though almost exclusively peaceful resistance from the elite of Santa Cruz, a once isolated cow town that remains the richest city in South America's poorest country.
Its U.S.-style consumerism, bootstrap mentality and racial makeup don't easily mix with Morales' vision of a communal state ruled by the traditional values of Bolivia's long-oppressed Indian majority.
Santa Cruz's elite made their millions from soy plantations, cattle ranches and real estate and feel targeted by government plans to seize land judged idle or fraudulently obtained and give it to the needy.
Santa Cruz is also the center of Bolivia's energy industry, and some worry about foreign investment now that Morales has forced international gas companies to increase royalty payments. Its leaders want autonomy and a bigger share of their state's natural gas revenues, but Morales needs the cash for desperately poor highland states.
That makes his revolution much more of an uphill battle than that of his closest ally, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has billions in petrodollars to spend.
All these are hot-button issues. But civil war?
“The Bolivian is a very impatient person. He always hopes for change, but he always sees the solution in catastrophe,'' says Victor Jemio, a retired Bolivian army general and military analyst. The country is notoriously unstable, he notes, having had 84 presidents and dictators in 182 years.
Morales, 47, was in New York last week for the U.N. General Assembly and showed up on Comedy Central's “Daily Show,'' denouncing capitalism as “the worst enemy of humanity'' while jokingly pleading not to be considered part of “the axis of evil.''
But in Santa Cruz, few are joking. Many believe uncorroborated whispers that Morales is flying in arms from Venezuela on unregistered midnight flights. A cryptic video recently posted on YouTube by a right-wing Santa Cruz group purports to show Indian “paramilitaries'' crawling around in the underbrush on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
This year's scariest yarn was given credence by O Globo, one of neighboring Brazil's largest newspapers. It quoted an anonymous Santa Cruz state official as bragging that a 12,000-strong anti-Morales militia was hidden in the jungle, awaiting the proper moment.
The newspaper's reporter never saw any militia, and no evidence has emerged to support any of the gossip.
Roda explains his gunshots as a tribute to the memory of a handful _ the exact number is in dispute — of Falange members killed in 1958 by Indian troops sent to quell their rebellion.
The “massacre'' has become a legend in Santa Cruz cafes and online chat rooms, where the bitter memory sometimes carries a racist shadow.
“The number of dead is less important than the humiliation (Santa Cruz) suffered at the hands of a pack of hounds blinded by alcohol and irrationality,'' Santa Cruz historian Alcides Parejas said in an e-mail interview.
It still echoes a half-century later as Indian immigrants _ largely Morales supporters _ arrive in search of work, driving Santa Cruz state's population from 2 million in 2001 to an estimated 2.5 million today.
Morales stoked the whites' fears last month when he hosted a parade of Indians alongside Bolivian soldiers at a Santa Cruz air base.
The tension sometimes spills into the streets.
The Cruceno Youth Union, an ally of Roda's group, was accused of organizing a pre-dawn raid in August on a largely Indian market. In footage shown on national television, drunken young men smashed car windows and threatened vendors with racial taunts. A car carrying fleeing thugs ran down and injured a vendor.
Union members deny any involvement. But the boys hanging around their ramshackle clubhouse twirl big sticks and baseball bats, and don't hide their distaste for pro-Morales newcomers.
“Either they adapt to Santa Cruz, or they return to their own territory,'' Union member Victor Hugo Vhistrox told The Associated Press.
Some fear the pistol-wavers' dreams will come true if common ground isn't found.
“We've arrived at a moment that we don't know exactly how to face,'' says Carlos Valverde, a Santa Cruz TV commentator and fierce Morales critic. Valverde belonged to the Falange as a teenager in the 1950s when his father was one of its leaders, but doesn't endorse violence.
“The fear I have is that one day we'll arrive at the cliff,'' he says, “and we'll arrive with such force that some will fall over the edge. And then it'll all go to hell.''