Focus on Santa Cruz
Everyone thinks of Bolivia as an Andean country, even though two thirds of it lies in the lowlands. This area, also known as the Bolivian Orient, is inhabited by more than thirty indigenous nations of diverse languages, though the majority of its population is mestizo—a mix of indigenous and Spanish-descent.
The Bolivian Orient belongs to the ancient colonial territory of the Santa Cruz Provincial Government, which became part of the Republic of Bolivia in 1825, after the Independence War. Yet the newly formed Bolivian state and government sites were located quite a distance away, in the Andean mining area, where most of the Bolivian population—of Quechua and Aymara origins—lived.
The department of Santa Cruz was divided up into three parts after the formation of Bolivia: Santa Cruz and two new departments, Beni (1842) and Pando (1938). These three territories share similar cultural characteristics, as well as an economy based on agricultural production, cattle farming and forestry. A strong regional identity has developed based on history and on these three areas’ ethnic diversity and mestizo heritage.
The regional identity—now quite a politically active one—has on several occasions come into conflict with the Andean-based central government’s power. In 2003 the region backed the Department Autonomy political proposal, which has garnered votes in favor of this form of government in several referendums over the years. This region also is known for its electoral opposition to President Evo Morales.
The Bolivian Orient has expressed opposition to the cultural project of the Evo Morales government with its strong ties in the Andean indigenous world, given the region’s strong sense of different identity. Between 2003 and 2008 political confrontations intensified, even after the approval of the new constitution, when the Morales government managed to weaken the opposition in the lowlands. Regional identities exist and have continued to strengthen despite of the political confrontation.
The cultural identity of Santa Cruz has developed since the Spanish domination. The Santa Cruz Provincial Government was formed as a frontier territory to stop the Portuguese invasion on the eastern border. It also sought to keep out hostile native nations that were attacking the area, particularly since such warfare was detrimental to the economical development of the mining regions such as Potosi. In Santa Cruz, a third frontier was established—seeking El Dorado in the region of Paititi. During the colonial centuries, the Santa Cruz de la Sierra provincial government enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the power centers of the Spanish Empire, because of the great distances and communication difficulties. This provincial government also was host to the Jesuit Missions of Moxos and Chiquitos, where a different kind of evangelization developed because of this region’s ethnic characteristics. Because of these historical circumstances, the ethnic tensions in the Orient are different than those in the rest of Bolivia.
Once the Republic of Bolivia was formed, Santa Cruz continued to be a marginal region, far from the dominant political and economic networks. Throughout its history, the region fought against the unitary and centralist government, demanding decentralization, whether in the Federalist form during the 19th century or political decentralization in the 20th century.
Until 1950, the central government based its economy on mineral exports. Agricultural production was not sufficient for internal consumption. In 1942, U.S. economist Mervin Bohan proposed economic diversification, emphasizing the need to include the Orient’s products in the Bolivian economy to ensure an adequate food supply.
Political participation was limited to men who knew how to read and write. Thus, most of the population was unable to choose its political representatives. In 1952, a nationalist revolution took place with U.S. support. This event transformed the country, allowing universal suffrage, and among other measures, promoting the development of Santa Cruz. From the second half of the 20th century onwards, Bolivia changed, widening its territory with the inclusion of the lowlands, and allowing citizenship for all people, including the participation of indigenous population.
In the second half of the 20th century, two different types of identities began to emerge in Bolivia. The first one, an ethnic identity, was based on the indigenous population, concentrated in the Andean area. The second, a regional identity, was located in the departments that form the lowlands, with their predominantly mestizo population and economic and political modernization projects. These two identities manifested themselves at the beginning of the 21st century through distinct political projects. The first seeks a social transformation towards a communitarian economy, while the second seeks departmental autonomies for improved regional economic development. The tension between these two projects has become evident in a political and economic struggle since Morales came into power in January 2006.
Not only has the second half of the 20th century been marked by confrontations between Santa Cruz and the central government. A succession of Bolivian governments viewed cruceño demands as “separatist,” accusing the region of wanting independence. Santa Cruz, an oil producing region, had to confront the central government during the late 1950s to obtain royalty payments for oil exports. Once these payments were granted, the region managed to transform and grow. In fifty years, it has become Bolivia’s leading economy, contributing to 40% of the national GNP and concentrating 25% of the national population in its territory. It is an exporter of agro-industrial, agricultural and forest products.
In the 1980s, after Bolivia’s return to democracy, a movement developed in Santa Cruz to establish local governments and hold municipal mayoral elections. This demand was once again categorized as “separatist” by the central government. Nevertheless, municipal authorities were indeed elected. Nowadays, 350 autonomous municipalities exist in Bolivia.
During the 1990s, Santa Cruz called for decentralization of power and the creation of departmental governments. But this demand was not heeded by the central government. As a consequence, at the beginning of the 21st century, calls for department autonomy continue in Santa Cruz. Its strong regional cohesion, based on its cultural identity, has turned into a political movement seeking a change in the centralist and unitary government form of Bolivia.
The two identities, the ethnic Andean and the regional Oriental, confront each other. Researchers have centered their studies on indigenous demands, leaving aside regional demands. Indeed, many consider regional demands to be antiindigenous, linking them to the oligarchies, without considering that both sets of demands question the Bolivian state that has historically excluded them. The current government, responsive to ethnic demands, has not answered the regional ones. Within its political project, it categorizes these demands as oppositional, because they seek to end the centralized power in the Andes and distribute it among the nine departments that constitute Bolivia.
Bolivia’s problems will be resolved once both agendas are satisfied: that of the indigenous population and that of the departments. This is how a country can be built, by including all the people that live in it, with no ethnic or regional differences.
Paula Peña Hasbún is the director of the Museo de Historia y Archivo Histórico de Santa Cruz. She can be reached at Museo_historia@uagrm.edu.bo.
Paula Peña Hasbún es la directora del Museo de Historia y Archivo Histórico de Santa Cruz.