Defending Democracy? Human Rights Discourse in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

October 19, 2011


Human rights discourses have made a powerful comeback in Latin America. Although they emerged out of the resistance to the repressive military dictatorships of the 1970s—when leftist student activists and religious figures were “disappeared,” tortured, and killed—they are now being picked up by right-wing organizers in Latin America who claim they are living under similar brutal dictatorships.1 The region’s left-leaning presidents—Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega—they say, are the 21st-century “dictators” who are attacking democracy and freedom of speech. In the real world, these governments have promoted policies attempting to redistribute wealth and reclaim control over private media, transnational corporations, and mining companies. These policies are affecting powerful conservative interests, and the right wing is responding to defend what it sees as its “human rights.”

Human rights discourses, however, are not formed in isolation. At each specific location in Latin America, they acquire distinct cultural, racial, and political characteristics. The human rights backlash in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia—the heart of the opposition to Morales—is an important test case to explore how broad-based discourses of democracy and rights gain local traction in the Latin American right-wing movement, and how this is fueled by the conservative fear of left-wing state transformations. Santa Cruz de la Sierra is located in the department of Santa Cruz in the eastern Bolivian lowlands. Today the department produces about one third of Bolivian GDP and is an important source of revenue for the country. Much of the city’s new influence and power began growing in the 1950s, when transnational investment in agribusiness and state support for large-scale farmers began to transform the small, dusty pueblo into the country’s agro-industrial capital. However, in this new era under Morales, who came to power in 2005, elites seem to imagine that they built the entire region with their own money, investments, and labor. This regional romanticism fuels their anti-state discourse and their calls for regional “autonomy,” while promoting a neoliberal model of development.

The new right-wing fears of “leftist invasions” from the highlands, where Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party is centered, are a result of the region’s political and economic shifts over the last 60 years and the explosion of Big Agribusiness. Although Bolivia’s mines in the highlands were historically the country’s economic backbone, attention turned toward developing the lowland region, with its rich, fertile lands, in the 1950s, when the United States provided millions of aid dollars to stimulate large-scale agro-industrial development in the region and create an entrepreneurial class of capitalist farmers.2 Sugar production thrived in the 1950s and 1960s, then cotton in the 1970s, and more recently, soy has become the “green gold”—the new hope for regional and national development. Capitalist development and export-oriented industries represented the answer for regional and even urban “progress.” This class of entrepreneurial capitalist farmers was highly successful in convincing even the most disenfranchised in Santa Cruz that progress and advancement were deeply embedded in a transnational agro-industrial model.

This economic expansion encouraged massive numbers of highland Indians to migrate to the lowland agricultural regions. Some came as low-wage laborers, while others were attracted to new business opportunities. New hierarchies of race, class, and ethnicity, inherent in this agricultural model, forged conflicts and tensions between the distinct groups of people. U.S.-funded colonization programs encouraged highland Indians—who are often referred to as Collas in opposition to the lighter-skinned lowlanders, or Cambas—to migrate to the lowland regions, particularly the northern areas of Santa Cruz. Poor immigrants who worked as contract and seasonal agricultural laborers composed the workforce of this new export-oriented industry. While entrepreneurs managed to control and pacify the low-wage indigenous workers through contract labor, racialized tensions flared with the presence of middle-class Collas who came to Santa Cruz and invested in business and commerce.

Elite Cruceños, worried that these highlanders might push to control critical markets, began to frame regional and resource-based struggles as part of an anti-Colla resistance. They formed committees, like the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee, founded in 1950, to protect their investments, consolidate their business interests, and create a political powerhouse in the region. In their first major battle, in 1957, they pressured the central government to earmark a larger portion of oil revenues generated in the department for local expenditure, and they eventually won.

As neoliberal policies in the 1980s and early 1990s disrupted communal relations, life, and livelihoods for many rural Andean communities, many more highlanders migrated to lowland productive regions like Santa Cruz. Cruceños responded to this new wave of highland migration with greater race- and class-based discrimination. As many scholars have noted, today they see these highland migrants as avasalladores (invaders) and a threat to Santa Cruz.3 Some urban Cruceños believe that the informal Colla vendors clutter and dirty the city streets and should be pushed to the margins, while in rural areas, Collas are described as “a flood, a hemorrhage, and the Indiada, or Indian hordes,” that steal land and productive resources from native Cambas.4 In both instances, Cambas view the highland indigenous migrants as out of place, a threat to agribusiness development, and a disruption to the orderly functioning of the modern city.

These racialized and class-based fears of indigenous invasions, with their economic undertones, took on new meaning in the 1990s as elites saw their grip on power dissolving. Social movements composed of indigenous people, urban activists, and NGOs advocated land reform, the radical redistribution of national resources, and the rewriting of the Constitution. Historically, Cruceño elites had benefitted from a centralized state; in the 1970s and 1980s, they received grants and tax cuts, and private banks gave them very low interest rates on loans for large-scale development. By the 1990s, however, they had no choice but to create a platform promoting a form of regional or departmental autonomy.

As indigenous groups and social movements began to gain more power nationally, Cruceños feared that their economic investments and historic privilege would face new threats of communitarian and redistributive agendas. They called for a form of departmental autonomy that would allow them to control police, migration, education, and economic policy; retain two thirds of all tax revenue generated in the department; and control natural resources and their exploitation, including the rights to negotiate contracts with hydrocarbon and mining companies. This movement for autonomy, however, did not gain significant power and traction until 2006, when Morales proposed to pass a new redistributive agrarian reform law, under which he would seize unproductive and large-scale landholdings (latifundios) in the east, where roughly 120 families control all the productive land, and redistribute it to poor campesinos.5

Alarmed, elites began to consolidate their interests and build a powerful counter-movement. Instead of focusing on the new agrarian reform bill or unequal landholding patterns in the east, regional elites masterfully launched a campaign to defend “democracy” and “rights.” Stage one of their campaign focused on what they saw as the manipulation of the law—the passage of Morales-sponsored legislation in Congress that shifted the rules of the game from requiring two-thirds approval to a simple majority. In the elites’ eyes, this move illustrated the dictatorial and totalitarian nature of Morales’s government and provided fertile ground for mobilizing Cruceños across race, class, and ethnicity to fight for their rights and their region.

Appropriating leftist tactics, particularly strategies used under the military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, elites set up hunger strikes, in November 2006, in the main Plaza 24 de Septiembre, the symbol of regional power in Santa Cruz. They hung large banners over one side of the municipal building that read, “2/3 Huelga de Hambre = Autonomia” (2/3 Hunger Strike = Autonomy). On the far-right side of the plaza, three wooden coffins bore signs reading, “Por las Autonomias Departamentales, Respeto a Santa Cruz” (For Departmental Autonomy, Respect for Santa Cruz). Green and white regional Santa Cruz flags were draped over some of the coffins as a symbol of the deep patriotic and regional sentiment. Young Cambas rested in these coffins, and every time someone passed, they would jump out and scream, “We want Bolivia to continue to progress, to be a developed and modern nation, not backward! That is why we are here today, sacrificing ourselves for this region!” Behind them, other colorful signs variously declared, “No al Nazismo Masista” (No to MAS Nazism), with red lines running through the potent symbol of the swastika. Morales’s face appeared on white T-shirts, encircled by a red “no” sign that dripped blood.

Instead of using signs and symbols of land or agro-industrial development, these right-wingers chose to focus their campaign for autonomy on promoting democracy, freedom, and rights. To them, Morales, like other “dictatorial” leaders in the region, represented a direct threat to democracy, as they understood freedom and democracy to be intrinsically linked to neoliberal capitalism. As Rubén Mendoza, a civic committee public relations representative told me in June 2010, “What we have is a dictatorship supported by paramilitaries from Venezuela.”

Their protests and resistance continued, culminating in a May 4, 2008, referendum on regional autonomy. Although the majority of voters supported the push for autonomy, abstention was high, and the vote was denounced internationally and nationally as both illegal and unconstitutional. Violence erupted in the wake of the referendum. Polling stations closed, and hundreds of largely pro-autonomy youths wielding sticks ran through working-class communities and slums, lashing out at anyone who looked indigenous.


The next stage of the Cruceños’ democratic, legalistic battles began when Morales’s MAS majority in congress passed the new Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination in 2010. The purpose of the law was to make Bolivia a more equitable society by criminalizing racist and discriminatory behavior, which had been abundant in the eastern region since Morales assumed office. Violent youth groups in Santa Cruz were known to attack anyone who appeared to be from the highlands, identifying them through their use of the pollera (a layered skirt typically worn by highland women) or through their use of an indigenous language like Aymara or Quechua.

The 24-article law mandates disciplinary action against public and private institutions for racism and discrimination. Conflict exploded over this point between the Morales administration and many sectors of the national press in Santa Cruz. Journalists working for private media companies said the law was a direct attack on their right to free speech, which they said should allow them to express opinions in opposition to the administration. Extending the same campaign of promoting democracy and rights in the region, 28 journalists organized a hunger strike in the main plaza of Santa Cruz in protest of the law, which they argued was trying to silence their freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. They called it “the muzzle law” and hung handmade muzzles from trees and buildings. Protesters wore T-shirts reading, “No Democracy Without Freedom of Expression” and “No to the Muzzle Law.”

Just as the protests in 2006–07 focused on the legality of the new agrarian reform law rather than the real issue of the region’s unequal land distribution, these battles in 2010 also failed to publicly discuss the predominance of the private media and the role they have played in promoting deeply racist and anti-indigenous sentiments—most highland Indians are portrayed as land invaders, thieves, and criminals.

This is no coincidence. The major TV channels, such as Univisión and Red Uno, are owned by wealthy landowners like Ernesto Monasterios and Ivo Kuljis, who have used the mass media to advance their interests and embolden the right-wing campaigns. This dynamic is replicated across the region. The Bolivian right has obvious ties to the right-wing opposition in Venezuela, where as of 2009, 27 families controlled more than a third of the radio and television waves. Conservatives claim that Chávez has attacked their fundamental right to free speech by attempting to rein in corporate-controlled media conglomerates. In June, Ecuadorans approved a law in a national referendum that also limited media conglomerates, but the law also seems to have imposed a limit on legitimate speech. A month after the law was approved four editors from El Universo, one of the largest newspapers in Ecuador, were sentenced to three years in prison for defamation after writing an editorial that called President Rafael Correa a “dictator” eight times. The defendants appealed, and Emilio Palacio—the most famous of the four and the brother of former president Luis Alfredo Palacio—fled to Miami.6

After the fight over the Bolivian media law, the country’s right wing launched its most recent push to “defend” democracy and human rights: a petition drive that gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures against Morales. They accused his government of committing several human rights violations, including the massacre at the small town of El Porvenir, in the department of Pando, in September 2008, when autonomy supporters opened fire on campesinos organizing against autonomy, and the violence at Huanuni, Oruro Department, in February 2009, when two rival groups of miners fought for control over Bolivia’s richest mines. Civic Committee members prepared booklets throughout the summer of 2010, with which they planned to launch a formal petition to the Organization of American States. On August 7, 2010, highland and lowland indigenous activists, informal laborers, and market vendors gathered in a grand assembly hall in Santa Cruz to listen to a panel of Pro–Santa Cruz Civic Committee members discuss this new era of civic struggle. Sarita Muñoz, grandniece of the famous Giselle Bruun, who led the hunger strikes in 1957 to demand a larger portion of oil revenues for the department of Santa Cruz, explained the new civic struggles as follows:

“Citizens of Santa Cruz must petition the United Nations to intervene. Why? We are signing these booklets because we want to contribute from the perspective of civil society. This action defines a public politics related to two big problems. First, we believe that democracy is the best system, even though there are daily challenges. Second, we believe that tolerance and reciprocity are the best way for us to support the country. It is for these two reasons that we must mobilize.”

Muñoz held up a small booklet, which flashed the official seal of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. The fine print beneath the seal read, “A book of Record of Petition, based on Article 24 of the Constitution . . . for the immediate implementation of an international commission to enable the dismantling of the networks of corruption and impunity that currently exist in Bolivia.” Inside the booklets, petitioners wrote their first and last names, and indicated their place and date of birth, their occupation, and their national ID number. There was also a small box for fingerprints.

The appeal to constitutionality and democracy, and against corruption and impunity, proved effective in mobilizing not only Cambas, but also highlanders who had settled in the east. After Muñoz’s speech, a highland indigenous woman from Potosí exclaimed:

“We must defend our rights through the democratic process! Evo Morales has only humiliated us. He has treated us so poorly. Brothers and sisters, I do not know all of you . . . but I am with Señorita Sarita. . . . I came from Potosí, and it was here in the land of the Oriente that I have awakened. We are living well, eating well, and we have work. Those who don’t are lazy. Evo says he is our president, but he is not. . . . It is for this reason that you should sign these books. With a million signatures, we will present our case to the UN.”

This campaign represented a way for distinct groups of people to reclaim their rights and reinstate a form of free-market capitalism, even if only in their region. People in Santa Cruz felt as though they were participating in the political process and defending their rights as citizens—rights they feel have been violated by the Morales administration. Instead of bringing these demands to the level of the state, however, they used the international arena of human rights and transnational organizing to bolster their case.

Luis Nuñez, former president of the Civic Committee, presented these booklets to the OAS in December 2010, but nothing has come of it.7 He has also been working alongside lawyers from the Order of Brazilian Attorneys, who have promised to help him with this case. He presented them with a copy of the formal complaint to the OAS and the list of “evidence” of political persecutions under the Morales government. In order to legitimize their claims, Nuñez and others have organized local events in which they have honored the victims who they say have been exiled, detained, or jailed as political prisoners.

On April 20, the Civic Committee organized an event called the Day of Political Prisoners, during which a crowd of some 1,000 people gathered in the central plaza of Santa Cruz shouting, “Justicia y Libertad!” (Justice and Liberty). Eerily resembling the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, these protesters also wore white shirts bearing the faces of their relatives and other political prisoners. Soy mogul Tatiana Marinkovic had on a shirt with the picture of her brother Branko Marinkovic and dark black lettering that read, “Perseguido Politico” (Persecuted Politician). A huge banner with the faces and names of all the right-wing activists who had been imprisoned under Morales hung behind the podium, where various speakers urged the crowd to take immediate action. These kinds of events create a shared collective identity against Morales while making a spectacle of their claims and scaling their demands up to an international level.

They also illustrate the power of human rights discourses to forge local and regional campaigns against Morales, although right-wing leaders are also using their transnational capital and strength to build a broad-based movement against the so-called axis of evil. On November 17, 2010, U.S. conservative think tanks sponsored a meeting in Washington to which they invited two members of the most recent Bush administration, and longtime proponents of harsh U.S. policies in Latin America—former assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, former senior official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Nuñez was also present, and he and other prominent right-wing activists articulated their concerns over their undemocratic governments. Former Ecuadoran president Lucio Gutiérrez, who many consider to have been behind an attempted coup against Correa in September 2010, chimed in, saying that this 21st-century socialism was “synonymous with totalitarianism.”8 Inspired perhaps, six months later, they held a sequel conference called “Legitimacy Lost: How 21st Century Socialism Subverts Democracy in Latin America.” (See “Legitimacy Lost: Human Rights Discourse in Washington.”)

By traveling to the United States and connecting with their U.S. counterparts, these leaders are linking their localized battles for resource control to a much broader global arena. Conservatives in Latin America share an agenda with right-wing forces in the United States: The buzzwords of democracy, security, and human rights are merely another cover, just as the ideology of national security enabled police states in Latin America to engage in ruthless campaigns against an alleged Communist menace during the Cold War era. Today, democracy and human rights are code words for the expansion of an aggressive imperialist agenda of free-market trade policies. Fearing that the rise of new political forces could undermine economic investments, rightists in the United States and abroad have joined forces to protect their global and regional economic interests. This rotating political door between conservative U.S. politicians aligned with agribusiness elites throughout the Western Hemisphere has the power to threaten fragile social-democratic structures in the name of democracy.

The U.S. right wing, aligned with Latin America’s most conservative leaders, is viciously fighting to hold on to a particular model of extractive capitalism. In their search for natural resources, cheap labor, and export-oriented markets, they seek to profit from, and monopolize control over, privatized state enterprises and sectors of the economy previously reserved for national capital. In 1971, Eduardo Galeano wrote of Latin America’s “open veins,” analyzing the region’s “resource curse,” as the rich and powerful plundered at the expense of low-wage earners and the environment. This model of unequal development built on cheap resource wealth in the Global South continues to ring true.

In this era of food, energy, and climate crises, soy can represent new possibilities for the expansion of the biodiesel market. And perhaps this is where we come full circle to the power of regional agribusiness capitalists in Santa Cruz—who defend their model of production and seek new opportunities to expand the already large soy industry. In order to defend this ruthless model of extractive capitalism and resource-based exploitation, elites are constructing powerful discourses of reclaiming rights at a moment when their way of life and economic mode of production are under attack.

“The Bolivian people are suffering the beatings of a government with the stain of tyranny, which denies democratic freedoms and violates human rights,” Nuñez told participants at the November conference in Washington. Right-wing activists say the same of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Cuba—countries that are pushing to challenge neoliberalism and the free trade model (however, see “A New Indigenous-Left in Ecuador?,” for an analysis of Correa’s policies as crypto-neoliberal). Through their discourse, these activists are linked to a much broader and more powerful right-wing movement, and together these conservative alliances in Latin America are working to defend their “rights” at all costs.



Nicole Fabricant is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Towson University. She is the co-editor, with Washington University professor Bret Gustafson, of Remapping Bolivia: Resources, Territory and Indigeneity in a Plurinational State (SAR Press, 2011), and is currently finishing a book on Bolivia’s Landless Peasant Movement (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming).



1. See “Dangerous Complacencies: Obama, Latin America, and the Misconceptions of Power,” Latin American Perspectives 38, no. 4 (2011): 14-28.

2. See Lesley Gill, Peasants, Entrepreneurs, and Social Change: Frontier Development in Lowland Bolivia (Westview Press, 1987), 44–45.

3. See Bret Gustafson, New Languages of the State: Indigenous Resurgence and the Politics of Knowledge in Bolivia (Duke University Press, 2009) and Nancy Postero, Now We Are Citizens: Indigenous Politics in Postmulticultural Bolivia (Stanford University Press, 2006).

4. Bret Gustafson, “Spectacles of Autonomy and Crisis: Or, What Bulls and Beauty Queens Have to Do With Regionalism in Eastern Bolivia,” Journal of Latin American Anthropology 11, no. 2 (2006): 362.

5. Approximate number of families cited in Jean Friedsky, “Land War in Bolivia: Conflict for Territory and Power,” The Narco News Bulletin, October 13, 2005.

6. Chuck Strouse, “Ecuadorian Journalist Emilio Palacio Escaped to Miami,” Miami New Times, September 8, 2011.

7. See Nicole Fabricant, “A Realigned Bolivian Right: New ‘Democratic’ Destabilizations,” NACLA Report on the Americas 44, no. 1 (January/February 2010): 30–31, 40.

8. America’s Forum, “Legitimacy Lost,” website,; PL and AFP, “Derechistas de Bolivia, Venezuela y Ecuador se reúnen con republicanos en Washington,” La Jornada, November 19, 2010, available at


Read the rest of NACLA's September/October 2011 issue: "The Politics of Human Rights."



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