Debunking Myths: The Eastern Lowlands of Santa Cruz: Part of an Integrated Bolivia

On December 6, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President, easily won reelection with 64% of the vote to 26% for the right-wing candidate Manfred Reyes Villa. During his first term in office the international press and opinion makers hyped a “deep” divide between Bolivia’s eastern lowland regions and the western Andean highlands. For example, an editorial in the Washington Post in 2008 claimed that “Morales is pursuing a narrow and divisive agenda that, if continued, will split Bolivia along geographic as well as ethnic lines, and possibly trigger a civil war.”[1]

While the Bolivian upper class continues to control the politics of several lowland departments, the divisions among the regions are not as deep as the mainstream media has portrayed them. Evo Morales outpolled Manfred Reyes in the lowland department of Tarija, and took nearly half the vote in Pando. He also strongly improved his showing in both Beni and the largest lowland department of Santa Cruz, where Morales took 41% of the vote, up from 30% four years ago.

Prior to the political crises of 2000-2005, few Bolivians, except for a small number of right wing ideologues, imagined Bolivia as distinctly divided into a western indigenous region and a non-indigenous “half moon” of lowland departments. Lowland political elites began to promote this inaccurate vision of Bolivia in an attempt to gain political traction among sectors of the population that did not easily identify with the core of rural indigenous organizations who gave legitimacy to the political leadership of Evo Morales. The hypothetical partitioning of the country has been used as an unrealistic threat of an elite alarmed by their diminishing power, rather than a likely scenario based on deep ethnic divisions. This divisive strategy has failed. Right wing leaders, who continue to deny the democratic legitimacy of Bolivia’s new “pluri-national” government are now losing support in the eastern lowlands.[2]

The Bush Administration undermined relations with Bolivia and neighboring countries by appearing to support the undemocratic wing of the lowland autonomy movement, resulting in the expulsion of the US ambassador.  President Barack Obama ratified the Bush administration’s retaliatory measures against Bolivia by refusing to reinstate trade preferences, using faulty arguments and “decertifying” its drug efforts.[3] A continued lack of transparency about USAID initiatives has further impeded bilateral relations.

With Evo Morales’ democratic mandate for a new term affirmed in Bolivia, and a new Undersecretary of State for Latin America in the US, now is an opportune time to repair Bolivia-US relations and encourage the continuation of a democratic process to address the vast inequalities that continue to exist in Bolivia’s Andean and lowland regions. In order to maintain a productive bilateral relationship the United States must address Bolivia’s concerns about the lack of transparency of aid programs and the suspicions that they are intended as a political intervention on behalf of traditional elites. Bolivia continues to welcome economic aid from foreign partners, but the US role must be appropriately respectful of the democratic process of change and development priorities in Bolivia.  This requires a better understanding of the differences and common interests of Bolivia’s Andean and lowland regions.

The Diverse Demographics of Santa Cruz

Bolivia’s largest department, Santa Cruz, is nearly the size of Montana. It dominates the eastern lowlands and contained 2.0 million inhabitants at the time of the 2001 census. The bulk of the population, 1.1 million people, live in the departmental capital, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s second largest city.  The media portrays Santa Cruz as wealthy and “white” in contrast to the poor and largely indigenous highlands. While certain characteristics of the power structure underlie this caricature, Santa Cruz as a whole is neither particularly “white” nor rich and the people of the department have strong economic, familial and cultural ties to the rest of Bolivia.

For the first half of the 20th century Santa Cruz de la Sierra was an isolated frontier town on the edge of a vast, forested region. In 1950 the city had less than 50,000 inhabitants and was not connected to other large population centers in Bolivia.  The phenomenal growth of Santa Cruz followed the opening of a paved road from Cochabamba in the 1950s and the opening of Santa Cruz’s forests to oil exploration, intensive logging and settlement by indigenous people from the highlands and foreign settlers.  Rural to urban and urban to urban migration from throughout Bolivia led to the 20 fold population increase in only 50 years. One in four persons currently living in Santa Cruz was born in another Bolivian department, and far more have parents or grandparents from other parts of Bolivia.

According to the 2001 census, 37% of the population of Santa Cruz identify themselves as belonging to an indigenous group.[4] Nearly half of these identified with either Quechua or Aymara cultures originating in the western departments. The smallest indigenous nation, the approximately 1,600 Ayoreo, live in several communities scattered throughout the east and south of the department and on the fringes of urban areas. Larger indigenous nations, the Izozeño and Ava Guarani, live in the southwestern part of the department, while the Guarayo are concentrated to the north.  The numerous Chiquitano communities in the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz form the largest lowland indigenous nation.  Many persons who consider themselves Chiquitanos live in urban Santa Cruz.

Cruceño Identity

With such a diverse and rapidly changing population, the Santa Cruz elite have invested great effort to construct a “Cruceño” identity to help maintain their privileged position and political power. The concept of Cruceño identity has remained quite fluid and has not been historically juxtaposed to a Bolivian identity.  Recent departmental leaders have asserted that “anyone in Santa Cruz who feels Cruceño is Cruceño.”  But since the first large migrations of highlanders in the 1950s, Cruceño identity has always been defined in opposition to “kolla,” the derogatory term lowlanders use for persons of Quechua and Aymara background.  Similarly, the European descended elite of Santa Cruz once used the term “camba” as a derogatory referent for persons of lowland indigenous background.  Now “camba” has been embraced as a general term for those who are from the lowlands, and is almost a synonym for Cruceño.  Many children of “kolla” parents now see themselves as “cambas” and “Cruceños” even though they may not share elite conceptualizations of these social categories or elite political inclinations.

Lighter skinned elite of predominantly European descent historically dominated the powerful lowland political and business networks, but this also tends to be true of the Bolivian elite in western departments as well.  On the streets of Santa Cruz, in its markets and non-exclusive barrios, the population seems fairly similar to other Bolivian cities’ demographics, in spite of important differences related to climate and topography such as preferred foods and styles of dress.

A false stereotype is that Cruceños are more business-oriented and highland indigenous people more collectivist. In fact highland indigenous people have a strong presence in the entrepreneurial small business sectors.  On the other hand, high society Cruceños tend to be nepotistic in their business practices. They frequently dole out access to land, capital and jobs according to family connections and membership in elite social fraternities.[5] In both the highlands and the lowlands the vast majority of the population is hardworking, entrepreneurial and community-oriented.

The highland population generally maintains a heightened consciousness of historical natural resource exploitation and depletion, benefiting only a privileged few.  In contrast, the Santa Cruz department is still in the throes of rapid economic expansion fueled by exploitation of hydrocarbons, deforestation and unsustainable soil depletion by agribusiness. This commerce and economic growth has led to better human development indicators than the rest of Bolivia, but it has also provoked uneven urban sprawl. Levels of poverty and inequality remain very high and are a significant source of social conflict in Santa Cruz.[6]

Diversity of Political Actors in Santa Cruz

While the main opposition candidate Manfred Reyes received about 53% the vote in the Santa Cruz department in the recent presidential elections, opposition is not uniformly spread throughout the region. President Morales took 41% of the departmental vote, and MAS candidates won seven of Santa Cruz’s fourteen individually elected Plurinational Assembly seats, including the one special indigenous seat for the region.[7]

The vast poor neighborhood of Plan Tres Mil is the center of support for Morales.  His supporters there keep the Aymara/Quechua indigenous flag flying in the central rotunda, despite repeated attempts by the Union Juvenil Cruceñista (a right wing youth organization) to tear it down. However, other poor Santa Cruz neighborhoods such as La Cuchilla, Alto San Pedro, and Pampa de La Isla also strongly support MAS.  Significant numbers of university students, intellectuals and professionals in the city also either support Morales or at least maintain a critical attitude toward the right wing opposition.[8]

Quechua communities in the Federation of Intercultural Communities (formerly the Federation of Settlers) to the northwest and northeast of the city in the towns of Yapacani, San Julian and surrounding rural areas comprise the strongest bastions of support for Morales. The Santa Cruz Peasant Federation (which was previously led by MAS senator-elect Isaac Avalos from the Valle Grande region in western Santa Cruz) also supports MAS. In addition, the Peasant Federation has bases of support just outside Santa Cruz near El Torno and to the north around the city of Montero.

Lowland indigenous leaders continue to maintain alliances with MAS, even though rivalries within indigenous groups and occasional land conflicts with highland indigenous settlers’ unions have sometimes provoked tension.  Under the new constitution and the MAS government, lowland indigenous peoples in Santa Cruz have received a special seat in the Plurinational Assembly, recognition of their right to territorial autonomy and support in disputes against large landowners.[9] While the government only made slow progress in its land reform initiatives during the first term, a notable achievement has been the transfer of land from large landowners to the Ava Guarani in Alto Parapeti where these indigenous people have historically worked in debt slavery to land owners.  Immediately after the recent elections the government has also moved to redistribute land claimed by the Hansa Corporation and the powerful Marinkovic and Monasterios families. In these cases, the government found title fraud, and violation of social use of land standards which were established by law under the Sánchez de Lozada administration in 1996.

Relatively strong levels of support for MAS led to the eventual popular rejection of autonomy initiatives proposed by lowland elites who only sought to deny the Morales administration the opportunity to govern. However, by examining the foundations of the autonomy movement in Santa Cruz, Part Two of this report demonstrates that sustained regional support for diverse forms of autonomy eventually pushed the MAS government to include local, regional, and indigenous autonomy in the new Constitution.


[1] Washington Post Editorial, May 6, 2008.

[2] Bolivia’s new constitution proclaims a unitary state that includes a plurality of indigenous nations.

[3] See joint WOLA and AIN memos analyzing faulty information cited in Obama’s decisions on APTDEA and drug war De-certification: http://wola.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=viewp&id=972&Itemid=2

http://wola.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=viewp&id=992&Itemid=8

[4] Statistics are based on self identification of person 15 years and older; 62% of all Bolivians who identified themselves as belonging to an indigenous culture. While persons who identify with an indigenous culture are a minority in Santa Cruz, they are a very significant one, just as non-indigenous persons are a very significant proportion of the highland population.

[5] Prado Fernando, Susana Seleme y Claudia Peña Claros, 2007. Poder y Elites en Santa Cruz: Tres Visiones sobre un mismo tema  Santa Cruz: CEDURE and CORDAID.

[6] Informe de Desarrollo Humano en Santa Cruz, 2004, PNUD. Pp. 23-24.

[7] Pluri-national Assembly is the new name for Bolivia’s bicameral legislature.

[8] Based on my own observations and interviews in August 2009.

[9] It is important to recognize that minority indigenous groups were disappointed that they were only given a total of seven seats in the assembly, and only one for Santa Cruz. However, the Guarani and Chiquitano peoples are large enough to have winning candidates in some of the regular rural districts, exemplified by the win of MAS Guarani candidate Wilson Changaray in the Charagua region.

Doug Hertzler is an anthropologist who serves on the board of the Andean Information Network. He has spent a total of over 6 years in Santa Cruz since 1988. His most recent research in Santa Cruz was during August 2009.