By Means Legal and Otherwise: The Bolivian Right Regroups

March 6, 2008

Two years into Evo Morales’s tenure as president of Bolivia, he and his party, the MAS, face difficult challenges. In pursuing its “democratic and cultural revolution,” as the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement Toward Socialism) calls its program, the party is grappling with its own missteps and with tensions between the indigenist, leftist, and nationalist wings of the movement. Meanwhile, the right-wing opposition seeks to frustrate the MAS agenda to the point of failure, since it cannot be defeated outright. Though weakened by its collapse in 2003, the right is regrouping through a two-pronged strategy of promoting a regionalist vision of departmental “autonomy” and rebuilding a national party apparatus.

Branko Marinkovic and Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga are two exemplars of this new strategy. Marinkovic hails from Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthy eastern city and the capital of the department of the same name. His parents arrived there from Croatia in the 1950s, just in time for an agrarian boom fueled by Bolivian state funds and U.S. aid dollars. Silvo Marinkovic, Branko’s late father, founded IOL S.A., now the largest domestically owned exporter of soy and sunflower oil. With soy-related industries second only to hydrocarbons in export importance, Marinkovic is a major player among the business elite. He led the private businessmen’s chamber of Santa Cruz by the age of 35; now 40, he leads the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, the self-(s)elected council of regional elites that has spearheaded the demand for autonomy and business opposition to the MAS.1

Like other moneyed immigrants, the Marinkovics built wealth the cruceño way. They hold large tracts of productive and nonproductive land (though many titles, acquired during military regimes, are of questionable legality). They run a business that grew under state credits, protection, and subsidies (though IOL S.A. is under investigation for tax fraud). And they control a sizable share of Bolivia’s Banco Económico, one of several strategies elites have employed to weather the vicissitudes of a commodity-dependent export economy. Marinkovic also followed a traditional path into cruceño high society. He graduated from the U.S.-style Santa Cruz Cooperative School alongside “traditional” cruceño elites (the Molina, Franco, Gutiérrez, Barbery, and Suárez families, for example). He married a Bolivian beauty queen (of German descent) and went to college in Texas, following others on circuits linking two oil-rich and business-friendly regions.

Though a lightning rod for critics who see in his Croatian heritage a link to the region’s racially charged calls for autonomy, Marinkovic has tactfully distanced himself from the separatist rhetoric of more extreme regionalists (some conspiracy theorists associate Bolivia’s Croatian community with the World War II–era pro-Nazi Ustashe regime, many of whose members fled to South America). Yet the paradoxes of wealth and a transnationalized identity make Marinkovic a perfect icon of the regionalist turn: Though regionalism revolves around claims of deeply rooted historical particularity, it also thrives on accommodations with transnational sources of wealth and power.

Quiroga, 47, more of a technocrat than Marinkovic, is at the forefront of attempts to rebuild a conservative party apparatus. A native of Cochabamba, he grew up in Santa Cruz, where his father worked in the oil business. There he graduated from the Colegio La Salle, a traditional high-society Catholic institution. He also went off to Texas A&M and St. Andrew’s of Austin, and eventually found a U.S.-born wife. Drawing on political networks in both Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Quiroga joined the Democratic Nationalist Action (Acción Demócratica Nacionalista, or ADN) party and became a protégé of its leader, former military dictator Hugo Bánzer. At 32 he served as finance minister during the early years of neoliberal structural adjustment, when the ADN was taking a corruption-filled turn at the state trough alongside its former nemesis, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left. When Bánzer was elected president in 1999, Quiroga returned as his vice president and took over after the old general resigned due to cancer in 2001.2

Barred from reelection when his term ended in 2002, Quiroga left the country to make the rounds of Washington think tanks and development agencies. Meanwhile, Bolivia continued its slide into social discontent as the violence and corruption of the neoliberal era took its toll on traditional parties. (The ADN polled a little more than 3% in 2002, and shortly thereafter the party virtually disappeared.) Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, or MNR) won that election but soon collapsed during the bloody Gas War of 2003. The right was in tatters. The MAS and its allied movements surged forward to demand new elections and a new constitution. At this point Quiroga returned relatively unscathed to Bolivia at the head of a new party called Podemos (Social Democratic Power). He was Morales’s main opponent in the 2005 elections, but the MAS won in a landslide. Podemos managed to secure the strongest minority bloc in congress and did well, especially in Santa Cruz, in later elections for the national constitutional assembly. Quiroga now leads the formal party opposition to the MAS, and among the right-leaning parties, Podemos has the broadest national base of support.


The stakes in the right’s resurgence are high. Bolivian natural gas, all of it located in the country’s eastern lowlands, generates millions of dollars of annual revenue disputed in a tug-of-war between national, regional, and local governments. Eastern agrarian and forestry lands constitute the extractive frontier of an export-oriented economy, and with mineral prices having risen in recent years, private cooperatives allied with transnational capital have clashed with the government over its plans to rebuild a state-run mining company. Massive deposits of iron ore in Bolivia’s far-eastern Mutún field (in Santa Cruz department) will soon be exploited by India’s Jindal Steel. The new markets in Asia promise yet another flood of income into a state already destabilized by gas. Resources and territorial power, pure and simple, have mobilized expectations and interests into an explosive frenzy.

Yet a deeper geopolitical struggle also exists. Although much has been made of the east-west divide between highland Andean kollas and the eastern Bolivian cambas—with pundits and observers anxiously predicting a slide toward an ethnoracial civil war—this is a misreading.3 It ignores the strong right-wing presence in the Andes and the equally significant MAS presence across eastern Bolivia. The east-west optic also collapses identity, ideology, and territory by conflating Andeanness, indigeneity, and the MAS regime. This feeds the right’s racially charged rhetoric of “autonomy” yet it fails to capture the tensions between the MAS agenda and that of the right-wing opposition. Whereas the MAS speaks of regrounding sovereignty (sentar soberanía) across national territory (reflected in its defense of a strong developmentalist state and its network of support linking small towns, marginal urban neighborhoods in all major cities, and rural provinces), the right (entrenched in major urban centers, with weaker tentacles reaching into provincial outposts) envisions a weak, neoliberal state of interconnected capital-friendly regions detached from the regulatory and redistributive pressure of national populations and politics.

A mapping of this right-wing vision would link Santa Cruz (with its easterly ties to soy-rich, energy-hungry Brazil and on to the Atlantic coast), Cochabamba, a crucial political linchpin, and pro-business La Paz (with its orientations west toward cities in Chile and Peru), along with Tarija and Trinidad, appendages of cruceño dominance. In this language of productive chains, clusters, and corridors, parts of Bolivia become transit zones for capital, while others are broadly excluded. If carried to its extreme, the vision would create exclusionary divisions between regional identities and detach democracy, citizenship, and sovereignty from the more profound project of nation building. Bolivia is not, then, on the verge of an east-west civil war. Rather, it faces a choice between recrafting the national project or converting the country into a series of regionally administered resource and labor pools that constitute production and extraction nodes on global market circuits.

Here the complementarity between the right’s pro-autonomy and party-building strategies represented by Marinkovic and Quiroga come together. The one seeks to intensify regionalist discourse against the nationalist agenda; the other, to construct a national-level party apparatus to defend and administer a hollowed-out neoliberal state. “Autonomy” represents not merely the pursuit of efficiency, local democracy, and accountability, but a demand for regionalized sovereignty. As testified in the Santa Cruz draft “autonomy statute,” a de facto regional constitution, autonomists want control over the means of legitimate violence; the signing of contracts with multinationals; the administration of schools, health care, and justice; the distribution of public forests, subsoil resources, and land; and even “internal migration.”4 This is something more than moderate federalism or decentralization.

To this end, the regionalist and party right have found success in a range of tactics, legal and otherwise. Their most powerful tools are newspapers and TV channels, owned largely by representatives of the pro-autonomy business class. Regionalist papers in Santa Cruz (El Deber, El Nuevo Día) and its allied city Tarija (El País) are closely aligned with the autonomist agenda. In La Paz, the major paper La Razón plays a more moderate role, like that of Quiroga, in defending the integrity of Bolivian territory while also railing against the MAS agenda. (It and the Santa Cruz El Nuevo Día are controlled by the Spanish media conglomerate Prisa Group.) In Santa Cruz, investors’ groups also control major TV outlets. Autonomy spots flood the airwaves with emotionally charged calls for “liberty” and “democracy.”

In recent months eastern Bolivian and Andean media outlets have synchronized “reporting” on three recurring threats posed by the MAS: Communist totalitarianism, inflation, and race war. In a country already wracked by nervous tensions and unsettled expectations, the media have played heavily on racialized fear and uncertainty against the imagined chaos brought on by the indigenous-led MAS government. The results of the national referendum on autonomy are a good measure of media success (and the fact that the message of autonomy resonates with many Bolivians). In Santa Cruz (department) the “yes” passed with more than 70% of the vote; in La Paz, it received only 26%.

The right has also turned to public culture and spectacle. Bolivian politics has long thrived on the power of dances, parades, and festivals, especially in the Andes. Yet cruceños are now also increasingly concerned with “culture.” Elites have hitched autonomy talk to carnival, to folkloric celebrations of regional identity, and even to intimate markers of speech, dress, and consumption. One cannot now eat majado, an eastern Bolivian rice, meat, and plantain dish, without thinking of oneself as an autonomist. (And one must pronounce it majao, like a good cruceño.) One must embrace and desire the (light-skinned, tall, definitively not indigenous) “beauty” of cruceña women who appear in public events, just as one should embrace and desire Santa Cruz and autonomy. Called “sovereigns” (soberanas), these beauty “queens” (like the region) are to be defended by true men like Marinkovic.

New forms of political spectacle have also been successfully used. Huge crowds are convoked to proclaim their support for “autonomy” in events known as cabildos, mass street assemblies said to represent popular democracy. The events are sheer pageantry, with helicopter flyovers, rock bands, civic notables, and much flag-waving. Crowds chant “Au-tono-mía! Au-tono-mía!” and the region’s colors—green (for natural abundance) and white (for noble, that is, racial, purity)—are ubiquitous. Though undoubtedly reflecting real anti-MAS sentiment, these urban spectacles reduce politics to colors and slogans that echo the carefully choreographed orange, rose, and velvet-style “revolutions” of Eastern Europe.

The right has also taken up Bolivia’s rich tradition of social movement
protest and language. In the days of corporatism, right and left were largely fungible stances that revolved around nationalism and state patronage. Many leaders of the new right (not a few ex-leftist statists among them) are intimately familiar with the power of populist symbols—Quiroga’s Podemos party emblem is a red star, no less. The racist and separatist Camba Nation branch of Santa Cruz’s autonomy movement takes up indigenous rights discourse, demanding “self-determination” and “land, dignity, and freedom.” It also mimics the language of anti-imperialist class struggle, chanting “El pueblo / unido / jamás será vencido!” The rancher-governor of Santa Cruz, former left-leaning Rubén Costas, speaks of defending autonomy through a “democracy of peace.” Marinkovic himself declares their struggle a battle against “authoritarianism” and “totalitarianism.”

The right has also used hunger strikes and marches, classic tools of social movement and union struggle in Bolivia. During the first sustained challenge to the constitutional assembly, the right and the MAS faced off over a procedural issue. The MAS hoped to approve articles by simple majority, while the right wanted to maintain an ambiguously written rule requiring a two-thirds majority. Andean and eastern elites went on hunger strike to defend the “2/3.” In a melodramatic show, cruceño business leaders were joined by the likes of would-be novelist (and La Paz native) Juan Claudio Lechín, son of the legendary Juan Lechín, who led Bolivia’s powerful miners’ unions from the 1950s through the 1980s. Though the show of wealthy people playing the part of hungry, oppressed, sacrificial victims was widely mocked by the “real” social movements, the right eventually succeeded in defending the 2/3.

During other conflicts over MAS proposals, the right has also staged marches in and around urban centers. Unlike the historic marches of popular and indigenous movements that move to and generally besiege centers of power, these marches are staged as spectacles to define public space as anti-MAS space and capture the sentiment of the urban middle and lower classes. To protest Morales’s land law, for instance, wealthy landowners staged a six-mile jaunt from the suburbs into Santa Cruz. Eastern Bolivia’s indigenous leaders rolled their eyes. They, of course, had exploded onto the national scene in 1990 with a march of more than 372 miles from the Amazon to La Paz. Other marches have erupted to protest MAS education proposals that seek to strengthen the place of indigenous knowledges and languages in public schools, remove Catholicism from the official curriculum, and regulate the business of private schooling. Organized by the regionalists and the Catholic Church hierarchy, parents and private school groups marched through the streets of Santa Cruz with signs suggesting Communism and Satanism were threatening their children. Other marches echo the tactics of the anti-Allende right in 1970s Chile, like the one staged by the “housewives” of the elite-led Feminine Civic Committee (a counterpart to the masculine group led by Marinkovic), which denounced inflation in defense of the “family basket.” In a country where the practice of popular protest is a deeply cherished tradition, these appropriations reflect both the collapse of the right wing’s institutional hegemony as well as the self-positioning of elites as oppressed minorities struggling against a brutal state.

Given that the right lost access to legitimate state violence, it now also relies on extralegal violence. Fistfights started by Podemos in Congress, disruptive violence at the constitutional assembly, and harassment of MAS activists is increasingly common. The MAS has also used the tactic of provocation, though its violence is generally defensive. More significant is the escalation of organized street violence, especially in Santa Cruz, where assaults on people and public institutions are the preferred tactic. The most notorious example is the Cruceñist Youth Union (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, or UJC), the young men’s counterpart to Marinkovic’s civic committee. The UJC merges violent cultural substrates linked to sports hooliganism, martial arts, weightlifting, and youth fighting into a directed instrument to enforce civic strikes, attack peasant and pro-MAS marches, and assault disputed public institutions like tax agencies, school administrations, labor unions, and water management entities.

The UJC’s tactics are spreading to other urban centers. The bloody confrontation between urban youth and MAS supporters in Cochabamba in January 2007, for which the MAS bears some responsibility, is an example. Though said to be marching for democracy, young urban men armed with sticks, bats, golf clubs, and homemade shields set out to provoke coca growers (also armed with sticks and machetes). In Tarija, a young men’s civic group also attacked a pro-MAS urban homeless peoples’ movement. When the right introduced the nonissue of moving the national capital to Sucre from La Paz, young men attacked the constitutional assembly and threatened MAS assembly members, all in an ostensible effort to defend Sucre’s demand. In the most recent case, the civic committee and the UJC mobilized to “defend” the Santa Cruz airport, that is, to effectively seize power over the airport administration to resist central government appointees. The military had to be deployed to maintain federal control.

In the rural areas, especially north of Santa Cruz, another kind of violence is emerging. Rural elites backed by the civic committee and business leaders have organized “land defense councils” and “self-defense committees,” the basic outlines of rural paramilitarism. These moves are backed by agrarian and cattlemen’s chambers reminiscent of Guatemala’s notorious Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations during the 1980s. One of them is led by a fiery rancher who has already declared that Bolivia’s next war, after the water and gas wars, will be the land war. On several occasions between 1999 (the onset of neoliberal collapse) and 2005 (the electoral victory of the MAS), armed thugs and landowners assaulted peasants who “invaded” contested lands. Attacks on NGO lawyers and peasant and indigenous rights’ activists escalated. Provincial elites also mobilized attacks on indigenous and peasant movement offices and installations of the state land reform agency, physically threatening and kidnapping land surveyors. These are the extralegal means on which the party and regionalist right relies.


There is a moderate opposition as well. “Soft” cruceño regionalists like former governor Carlos Molina pursue decentralization yet distance themselves from the fascistic tendencies of the Civic Committee and the UJC. Many have been accused of “betraying” the region. In La Paz and the Andes, the moderate right includes the professionals who occupied the NGOs, think tanks, and consultancy offices of Bolivia’s 1990s development boom. They now face deep questioning of their market orthodoxy, the loss of their party vehicles (the MNR, among others), and their discredited links to neoliberal-era corruption. Yet with continued support from entities like USAID and other donors, these figures pursue a new developmentalism that touts regional tourism, small-scale entrepreneurialism, micro-enterprise, and decentralization. They are defined by an intellectual commitment to the market (and a pragmatic fear of national-popular democracy). Their position overlaps with the Quiroga-Marinkovic right in the language of “regional development”—neoliberalism’s answer to the contradiction between democracy and free markets. An influential think tank called Fundación Libertad y Democracia, with ties to the Cato and Heritage foundations (and with Marinkovic on its board), now preaches freedom by way of autonomy. In La Paz, Nuevo Norte is a similar holding tank for technocrats out of power. Those who once sought to liberalize Bolivia have downsized their visions to now speak of developing “the department of La Paz.”

Meanwhile, the intellectual right attacks the social justice agenda of the MAS by calling it irresponsible populism. Yet it turns to cultural racism to dismiss the indigenous character of the MAS agenda and its creative exploration of new languages and epistemes to rethink economy, polity, and society. Writers like H.C.F. Mansilla, a Mario Vargas Llosa–type liberal, represents this erudite anti-indigenous stance. Mansilla argues that Andean (i.e., indigenous Aymara, Quechua, and mestizo-cholo) “mentalities” are culturally conservative. Andeans resist “modernization,” the thinking goes, because of the baggage inherited from the Spanish colonial bureaucracy and its fateful collision with Inca totalitarianism. Forward-thinking easterners are more open to change and progress.5 Mentality is, of course, a codeword for race, and implicitly dismisses the MAS agenda as anti-modern primitivism.

This intellectualized racism dovetails with anti-statist regionalism. Cruceños openly scorned Morales’s overtures to Andean ritual at his inauguration and mock MAS indigenous ministers who invoke Andean spiritualism. By reviving a vision of Bolivia as divided into modern and premodern (indigenous) peoples and places, parts of the country can be imagined as modernizing “autonomous” spaces fit to manage their own resources and “mentalities.” Other parts, as pro-autonomy cruceños have acknowledged, may not want autonomy and will still cling to the state, but will choose autonomy in the future after they have “evolved.” This more palatable cultural racism underlies a long-standing alliance between the nonindigenous conservative elite of the western Andes and the agro-industrialists of the east.6

Against the challenge of the right, the MAS faces its own authoritarian temptations. The party’s leaders acknowledge that their party struggles between two logics: that of the older Bolivian left, which pursued state capture through blockades and petitions, and that of a new, emergent left infused with a decolonizing indigenous agenda that seeks to reconstitute the state itself and redefine political subjectivities in alliance with a social justice platform.7 Natural gas provides resources to defend this agenda, yet it also generates conditions ripe for corrupt authoritarianism. Whether democracy can be preserved without losing sight of the progressive agenda, decaying into state patronage politics or morphing into the right’s vision of a hollowed-out electoralism, is still an open question.

Bret Gustafson teaches anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of New Languages of the State: Indigenous Resurgence and the Politics of Knowledge in Bolivia (Duke University Press, forthcoming).

1. Miguel Lora, “Los capitanes del comando Camba,” El juguete rabioso, February 5, 2005, pp. 8–10,


3. See, for example, Dan Keane, “Civil War Talk Stokes Bolivian Fears,” The Washington Post, September 30, 2007.

4. Estatuto de Autonomía del Departamento de Santa Cruz, 2006, p.11,

5. See, for example, H.C.F. Mansilla, El carácter conservador de la nación boliviana (Santa Cruz, Bolivia: Editorial El País, 2004).

6. On cultural racism, see Charles Hale, Más Que un Indio (More Than an Indian): Racial Ambivalence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala (School of American Research Press, 2006).

7. See Álvaro García Linera, Horizontes y límites del estado y el poder (La Paz, Bolivia: Comuna, 2005).

Tags: Bolivia, politics, right wing, autonomy, Santa Cruz, elite, Jorge Tuto Quiroga

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