This weblog was created to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the current situation in Bolivia. Our principal effort to try to pull things together and place them in proper perspective is the penultimate post below, titled "Main Story."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Another Bullet Dodged Dept.

STRIFE-TORN CITY? -- Cruceños cool off Wednesday, Santa Cruz Day, at one of the city's two aquatic parks. El Deber

Marchers threaten crisis,
then disappear -- sort of

All week long we have been meaning to post a story about the looming clash involving between besieged citizens of Santa Cruz and the columns of thousands of marching, machete-wielding, shotgun-brandishing campesinos who were ostensibly threatening to lay waste to the city when they got there.
We were just waiting for the pending cataclysm to take shape -- who would be doing what, when, where,why, and maybe how.
But it never happened. Things never coalesced. By yesterday afternoon the news was spreading that the marchers had decided not to storm the city after all. Some other day perhaps, but not today.
Stores that had begun boarding their windows earlier Tuesday began taking the boards down as evening fell, and the city seemed to give a blasé, can-you-beat-that? shrug of the shoulders to the
whole affair.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS --Scenes from the campesino march. OGLOBO

This was in keeping to an attude
maintained all week of studied
indifference to the affair on the part of most Cruceños, who, when asked about the possibility of a Gunfight-at-the-OK-Corral-type showdown within the city, dismissed it with a downward flip of the hand that implied, "It will never happen here."

This flies in the face of the fact that it has happened here. Truckloads of campesinos were trucked into Santa Cruz in the late 1950s when the same issue was in play, with Santa Cruz demanding its legislated portion of revenues from the country's petroleun industry. Although the Cruceños eventually got the payments restored that time, the invasion by the campesinos wrought all manner of mayhem, particularly in the outer regions of the city, where there were incidents of torture and killings. In earlier conversations many long-time Cruceños acknowledged a desire to extract revenge for those historic atrocities.
One did not, in fact, have to go that far back in Bolivian history to find an episode in which a city's political confrontations escalated to the scale of civil war. For two weeks in October 2005 something close to a state of war existed in La Paz as followers of Evo Morales, the current president, sought to drive one of his predecessors from office by shutting down the city. People who didn't want trouble stayed inside their houses.
In 2006 the city of Cochabamba was the scene of a city-wide fist-fight between pro-Morales and anti-Morales factions.
And this time the campesinos marching on Santa Cruz were clearly carrying shotguns, World War I mauser, cattle-killing .22s, and assorted other firearms. (See pictures.)

What -- us worry?
Nonetheless, the entire citizenry of Santa Cruz seemed to decide to turn the other cheek. While the Union Juvenile Cruceñista, a sort of proto-militia for the Santa Cruz government, was reportedly holding nightly meetings to examine possible responses to the marchers coming in on at least three different approaches, the UJC leaders didn't share their thoughts with the populace at large, and there were no messages from other civic leaders giving instructions for how to receive the marchers, or even noting that the marchers were on the way.
Foreigners, on the other hand, along with some more affluent Crcueños, were transfixed with fear, constantly asking one another where the marchers were, and how many hours march from the city they were. One student reported that her mother was "watching TV news 24 hours a day," and considering making a hasty exit from the country.

"I´ll bring my machete"
But far more typical was the reaction of my veterinarian. On Tuesday he had begun treating our horse for blood parasites, and said he would be over on Wednesday to start the next phase of treatment.
Wasn't he worried, I asked, about the possibility that the region might be engulfed in civil war be then?
"I´ll bring my machete," he said sardonically, as he climbed into his muddy red SUV.
Some people suggested that the outward indifference built on an understanding that if push had really come to shove, the people of Santa Cruz could turn out in overwhelming numbers. "There are a lot of guns in Santa Cruz," one American communications expert who has been in Bolivia for decades told me.

A different city today
I was also reminded that when the campesinos overran Santa Cruz in the 1950s, it was a tiny city of around 50,000 in which only the four streets around the central plaza were paved. Today it has a population of 1.5 million, and a lot more paved streets.
Also, the marchers would have been entering the city through, or past, districts that had voted for autonomia by as much as 90 percent to 10.
Anyway, the cloud seems to have passed. Negotiations between the autonomous governors and the national government are continuing, albeit fitfully, in Cochabamba. The word on the street is that we're probably safe for another month.
Gasoline is available again, along with propane and diesel in limited quatities. (There are often lines.)
Here's a list of what one cannot find at the supermarket, presumably as a result of the various blockades: Strawberries, peaches, the canned whipped cream that comes from New Zealand by way of Argentina, Dr. Pepper soda . . .and, well, that's all I noticed. Oh, and Betty Crocker Pancake Mix and Aunt Jemimah imitation maple syrup.

Boom in luxury condos?
In fact it would be hard to overstate the mood of normalcy with which the city is gripped at present. The cover of the real estate section today talks about a coming boom in luxury condominiums, which tend to be favored by refugees from La Paz. These are nice places with swimming pools and gyms, but not that expensive -- $55,000 for two bedrooms.
The big thing to do this past weekend (and again today, Wednesday, on Santa Cruz Day) is to go to the big trade fair -- Expocruz -- which runs through Friday. We were there Sunday when 41,000 people paid there way in, and it was packed to capacity. It was hard to walk down the midway because of the press of the populace.

Long lines for USA pavillion
There long lines in front of many pavillions, incuding the USA pavillion, which consists mostly of exhibits by export-import firms of products like double-door General Electric refrigerators, Hewlett Packard computers, and silicone breast implants. (You could pick them up and check the natural feel.) All were on sale with special Expocruz markdowns.
When one tired of the corporate attractions, including immense agricultural equipment with airconditioned cabs, there are the cows -- hundred of huge white and brown cattle that gave the impression of having been crossed with elephants.
Scattered throughout Expocruz were the stars of the show, the female presenters, or "azafatas" -- magificently beautiful women wearing fashions created by designers who had clearly been ordered to conserve material by using as little as possible.
The passageways were filled with the full array of Santa Cruz denizens -- oligarchs, Indians, mestizos, people of all shapes and colors, with kids in tow, happily eating ice cream and taking in the show. Pairs of policemen strolled throuygh the crowds. Constantly circulating trash trucks picked up the trash gathered by the seeming numberless crews of santiation workers in yellow and green uniforms.
All in all, the crowd scene seemed to offer a picture of another
possibility for Bolivia, one that may not be getting proper consideration at the Cochabamba talks.


Anonymous said...

Morales was quoted in the media today that he would make no concessions in the new constitution to the eastern provinces. As one who has visited Santa Cruz annually for the past 11 years, I am worried. I do not think Morales will back down nor will his supporters let him. I expect armed conflict to erupt when his supporters enter the city. It has been widely rumored that Cuban military are in country and are part of a pacification plan. The underlying ethnic differences are ignored but the largely indigenous military will not have trouble carrying out orders to suppress the citizens of Santa Cruz. Please be careful. You are in our prayers and hearts.

Jim Breiner said...

thanks, David, for the real-life story. Video shots of confrontations reduce the entire picture of a country to a few square inches. Still, if I were still with you there, I would have been worried. I remembered seeing a half dozen buses that had carried autonomy supporters through the rock throwers of San Julian in December 2006, and the sight of all the windows smashed was chilling.

elrico said...

I wonder if you could expand on the issues. The media, even the Economists, has not touched too deeply into the issues.

For example, I have heard mention of "land reform." But what does not specifically entail? Does Morales have a plan?

It is obvious that the issues run deeper than the mere distribution of oil revenues.

I would agree with the Anonymous comment above. In todays world political climate, this sort of thing makes for a good excuse for Chavez and company to expand their influence. The question, however, is the cost. Talk is easy. Landing a few helicopters and a few troops to show support is cheap. Logistics and long-term support operations are very, very expensive. I hope the OAS is on top this, or at least the neighboring states. Argentina and Brazil apparently have a direct interest in the flow of gas from Bolivia. They need to get involved with this and bring Morales to a negotiating position.