A story has emerged out of Bolivia in the last month that, embarrassingly, I had payed little attention to until I realized that it is the kind of ridiculous and tragic drama which cuts right to the heart of Bolivia's national moment (appearing to be careening towards climatic crisis on May 4th) and repeats in all too typical fashion the horror laid bare of American Empire at its peripheral, contested, and bloody edges- the Old South in the Resisting Global South.
In late February 2008 Bolivia's National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA) began the process of land ownership accounting (first step in establishing legal titling and if necessary redistribution procedures), called saneamiento, in an area of the southern part of the eastern department of Santa Cruz, Alto Parapetí. This move had been long sought by indigenous groups of the area, specifically the Guarani Popular Assembly (APG) which supports Evo Morales MAS government, in a region known as El Chaco (including parts of Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, and Tarija), an area rich in subsoil natural gas reserves and historically dominated by large ranching estates and recently soy plantations despite preexisting Guarani claims to much of the land. The Chaco's latifundias (illegally extensive holdings) are also known for perpetuating the practice of slavery, indigenous Guarani held as laborers on such properties via some mixture of debt and coercive bondage- something well documented in other parts of the Chaco, highly suspected in Alto Parapetí, and off guardedly admitted to by several Alto Parapetí commercial ranchers and farmers. Under Bolivian law any landholder found to be exploiting servitude labor lose all rights to land title.
When the Vice Minister of Lands Alejandro Almaráz and the National Director of INRA Juan Carlos Rojas, and the President of the APG, Wilson Changaraya, along with other INRA officals entered Alto Parapetí to formally begin the long awaited saneamiento with all the authority necessary by visiting the sites in question and notifying the property holders their vehicle was stopped by a armed posse headed up by local landholders (later referring to themselves as the "Alto Parapetí Defense Committee"). They shot out the tires, threatened "No one is going to leave here alive, now blood will run”, and took the group hostage- managing to escape after eight hours. This incident coming a day after the local INRA offices in Camiri were looted. Several weeks later in April returning with a larger contingent, Almaráz, Rojas, representatives of the APG, and several dozen national police twice attempted to enter Alto Parapetí. They were blockaded on both occasions by a vastly reinforced "defense committee", and on the second attempt ambushed by armed assailants, resulting in more than forty injures, five persons listed as "disappeared", and several accusations of kidnapping and torture. "The government temporarily has suspended saneamiento activities and recalled Almaráz to La Paz."
An excellent piece "Landowners’ Rebellion: Slavery and Saneamiento in Bolivia" at Upside Down World written by our favorite Che loving hippie Alexander van Schaick (the Wobblie who nearly brought down the US Embassy) details these incidents, background, and implications (from which I have summerized). Additionally, Xavier Albo provides some historical and sociological background on Guarani enslavement on Bolivia's best television newsmagazine.
Criminal charges have been filed against the two ring leaders of the Alto Parapetí "defense committee", both US citizens, Ronald Larsen and his son, former 2004 Mr. Bolivia Dustin Larsen (pictured left), also known by Montana State Kappa Sigma as "Big D the Bolivian Nightmare". (Maybe some Aymara community justice should of in fact been whipped on Dustin's ass for that llamita he never killed?) Ronald Larson, a US Vietnam veteran, apparently acquired his massive land estates (which the government claim includes 141,000 acres!) during the illegal land give-aways of the Hugo Banzer dictatorship in the 1970s after showing up for no apparent reason in Bolivia, 1969 coincidentally (?) right before Banzer rose to power in a military coup, crushing the radically democratic Popular Assembly, a peasant-worker alternative government. "Over the years his ranch has been turned into a tourist complex with nature attractions, a gymnasium, game room, dining room, meeting room, library, sauna and jacuzzi."(Bolpress), all with money from the Inter-American Development Bank apart of creating an exemplary “Private Heritage Nature Reserve” (actual tourist site).
Larson and his fellow land holders have of course now become the cause celeb of the conservative Santa Cruz autonomy movement: "Por la libertad y la democracia, Autonomia!". Santa Cruz also happens to be the hub of Bolivia's financial, hydrocarbon and commodity export wealth. Ruben Costas, Santa Cruz Prefect, and Branko Marinkovic (a latifundista himself), President of the Comite Pro Santa Cruz have publicly voiced their support for the private property holders struggle against the government. Because we all know as one supporter put it, this whole operation is just a ploy by Evo to “train a FARC in the Cordillera [souther Santa Cruz].” The only problem is that the only youth and paramilitary gangs present during the melee were those backed and sent by Santa Cruz in support of the landholders- the Unión Juvenil Crucenista and Falange Socialista Boliviana, yup, straight up fascists. Venezuela's Telesur has recently produced a documentary "Guerreros del Arcoiris" which does a good job of exposing the racist and elitist hypocrisy and violence at the center of the autonomy movement and the US government money behind it all (also see "Undermining Bolivia" by Benjamin Dangl).
It also just so happens that the Santa Cruz "Autonomy Statute" to be voted on May 4th, besides being struck down as unconstitutional by the national courts, stipulates that:
“Property rights over land, the regulation of rights, the distribution, redistribution and administration of lands in the province of Santa Cruz are the responsibility of the Provincial Government and will be regulated through a Provincial Law by the Provincial Legislative Assembly.”
Take that national commie agrarian reform program! The big boys in Santa Cruz will redistribute God's good green earth just fine without those outside agitators, thank you very much.
So there you have it, wrapped up tight in a neat package; a threatened exploitive and land holding neocolonialist class allied with fascist thugs hiding behind the liberal rhetoric of freedom attempting to save their privilege through brute violence from the approaching 'barbarians' and with the covert support of Holy Rome, on the fringes of contemporary petro-imperialism. I think Cuba's Vice President aptly "accused the United States of trying to create a 'Kosovo' in the hydrocarbon-rich eastern provinces of Bolivia." A political program that has successfully paralyzed Bolivian society and the promise of redressing the gapping needs of Bolivia's impoverished indigenous majority by deepening regional and racial vitriol. As Mr. Freedom would rather say, "my white guards!" saving off the brown and red hordes of South American socialism and "narco-terrorism", those "indios de mierda" as they say in Santa Cruz, or as Evo Morales sarcastically self-recognized when commenting on Fernando Lugo's recent electoral victory in Paraguay: "Welcome to the Axis of Evil".
Van Schaick characterizes Larson and son's role as a bizarre aspect of the story, a footnote possibly distracting from the larger disasterous saga of landownership and human rights in eastern Bolivia. He is right to keep the big picture in mind, but from my experience observing Bolivia and its position on the global stage, these gringos are maddeningly all too typical of the delusional, schizophrenic, and murderously psychotic pathology of power run rampant across the planet, living in and corrupting our cultural metaphors; a figure often best approached through archetypes like Mr. Freedom, whose odds of appearing uncanny in the flesh seem to be more than not.
Sadly, this is all the retelling of something very old, product of the twin foundational sins of America (I mean both continents here) of stealing the land from its rightful inhabitants and then enslaving them or another to work it, but all in the name of God and liberty in some combination. Forced to repressively face down these contradictions as their consequences keep reappearing and those lashed to the bottom incessantly find new springs of resistance, what are we left with? What Mr. Freedom wakes up to every morning, one killer hang over.