Bolivia's farm region clashes with capital over grains, cattle

Protests and blockades snarl transport
calendar icon 12 January 2023
clock icon 3 minute read

Javier Monasterio, a rancher in Bolivia's lowland area of Santa Cruz, is feeling the economic hit of weeks-long protests and blockades since the dramatic arrest of the region's governor that has snarled domestic transport of grains and meat, reported Reuters.

The tensions were sparked by the arrest of Santa Cruz's local elected leader Luis Camacho last month over an alleged coup in 2019 against then-President Evo Morales, a complex period of Bolivia's history that sharply divides opinion.

Protests against the central government have seen buildings and cars burned, while blockades have prevented transport of food and grains from the key producing region, a bid by local leaders to pressure La Paz by squeezing domestic supply.

The tension has seen Monasterio's plans to double the number of cattle on his farm put on hold, but he remains resolute that the region needs to fight back against what many locally see as a political attack by La Paz.

"This affects us because a good part of our production goes to markets in the interior," Monasterio told Reuters at his farm, adding though that he respected the "popular movement" that he hoped would bring longer-term benefits to the country.

"It's worth the sacrifice, it's worth suffering, it's worth it even in these difficult times... we're going to win."

The tensions underscore a sharpening of a deep-seated rivalry between Santa Cruz and La Paz - Bolivia's farming hub and the political capital respectively - that have long butted heads over politics and resources.

Santa Cruz is a conservative, Catholic region with a significant white European descent community. La Paz is an Andean stronghold with a large indigenous population that has traditionally titled towards the ruling socialist MAS party.

The government in La Paz says the arrest of Camacho was justice for stirring up protests as a civic leader in 2019 that led to the resignation of Morales under widespread pressure and ushered in a divisive interim right-wing government. Camacho denies the charges.

After winning 2020 elections, Morales' MAS party, now headed by his former economy chief Luis Arce, returned to office and has gone after rivals, including Camacho and interim president Jeanine Anez, also currently in jail.

Economy Minister Marcelo Montenegro said Santa Cruz would struggle to put pressure on the capital, arguing that while it was a key food producer, other regions could take the slack and that it needed state fuel subsidies and domestic buyers.

"They can't resist on their own", said Montenegro, adding the rising economic pressures would force Santa Cruz producers to re-start supply within the country.

"It is a very complex bet. What we understand is that there is an economic rationality, but well, we don't see it being that strong. They are going to have to somehow go back to depending on national consumption."

The stand-off between the two cities has sparked calls in Santa Cruz for a federal model to gain more autonomy and some more extreme groups demanding independence. Many still remain determined to keep protests going.

"We are going to rise up to our faith," said Victor Hugo, at a church in Santa Cruz, a region where Christian iconography is prominent from the streets to offices of local civic groups.

"The situation is critical for each one of us, but I am with this fight, I prefer to fight today and live calmly tomorrow. Every Santa Cruz person has to fight, all Bolivians must fight for the well-being of Bolivia, for freedom."

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