Like many third-world countries, Bolivia is experiencing food shortages and rising food prices attributable to a global food marketing system driven by multinational agribusiness corporations. With sixty percent of the Bolivian population living in poverty and thirty-three percent in extreme poverty, the price of the basic food canasta — including wheat, rice, corn, soy oil, and potatoes, as well as meat — has risen twenty-five percent over the past year with prices gyrating wildly in the local markets.
As in most other countries affected by the food crisis, the overall rise in food prices is attributable to the workings of the free market — when the price of one or several commodities goes up, the consumers turn to other foodstuffs, thereby driving up these prices as well. In an effort to halt the effects of this unregulated market, the government has enacted price controls and even prohibited the export of beef, most of which is produced on haciendas. But these measures have been largely ineffective: a black market flourishes as agrarian commercial interests openly flout the central government’s price controls, even directly exporting commodities like beef and cooking oil at higher prices to the neighboring countries of Chile and Peru.
This is taking place as Bolivia’s first Indian president, Evo Morales, is facing a sustained challenge by a right-wing movement for autonomy that is integrally linked to the very agribusiness corporations that are profiting from the upsurge in food prices. Based in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, a powerful agrarian bourgeoisie is determined to upend the government’s agrarian reform program and to halt Morales’ efforts to more equitably distribute the wealth that flows from Bolivia’s oil and gas fields. Its ultimate goal is to topple Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) that backs him.
The corporate dominated agro-industrial complex in Santa Cruz is centered on the growing, processing, and export of soy beans. Two of the world’s largest agribusiness multinationals, ADM and Cargill, play a major role in the regional economy. They are primarily exporters of Bolivian soybeans and sunflower seeds while ADM co-owns with a Bolivian firm the largest vegetable oil processing plant, Sociedad Aceitera del Oriente.1 Giant agribusiness corporations like John Deere have commercial outlets in Santa Cruz as Bolivia manufactures no heavy agricultural machinery. Multinational companies supply most of Bolivia’s agrichemicals, while Monsanto and Calgene are promoting genetically modified seeds. Peruvian and Colombian agribusiness interests have also set up processing plants in Santa Cruz, including the Romero Company from Peru which has joint international operations with Cargill, while large soy growers from the neighboring Brazilian state of Mato Grosso have settled on Bolivian lands.
The agrarian bourgeoisie of Santa Cruz is orchestrating the movement for provincial autonomy in order to seize control of the region’s extensive resources from the national government. The referendum on autonomy that was unconstitutionally voted on and approved in Santa Cruz on May 4, 2008 would allow the provincial administration to write its own contracts with multinationals and to exercise direct control over the police and law enforcement agencies. Autonomy would also enable the province to override national legislation promoted by Morales and MAS on agrarian reform and the control of public forests and subsoil rights, including natural gas and oil.
The economic policies favoring the rise and consolidation of the agrarian bourgeoisie allied to global agribusiness took shape in the mid-1980s when the International Monetary Fund stepped in with a structural adjustment program. Hyper-inflation had gripped the country from 1983-85 and in exchange for the refinancing of Bolivia’s public and international debt the government agreed to a series of “market reforms,” including the reduction of tariffs and the slashing of state subsidies and assistance for the growing of basic food commodities.2
These measures overturned the strong role the state had come to play in the economy with the Bolivian revolution of 1952. Along with the nationalization of the tin mines, the worker- and peasant-backed revolution led to an agrarian reform that broke up the hacienda system in the Andean highlands which had bound much of the Indian population to the land in virtual servitude. With the takeover of the large estates by peasants, rural unions, and Indian communities, the production and marketing of basic food stuffs increased, particularly in the 1950s and early 60s.3
But another agrarian dynamic began to take shape in the eastern part of the country during these years. Bolivia has three main geographical zones; the Andean highlands or plateau in the west where the agrarian reform was concentrated; the valleys located more in the center and to the south; and the plains or low lands that extend into the more humid and tropical regions in the east.
In the 1960s and 70s, a new landed class emerged in the low lands centered in the province of Santa Cruz. Seizing control of large swaths of the plains and rain forests, often illegally or through government concessions acquired through bribes, the new landed barons raised sugar cane and cotton while plundering the rain forests for lumber. The reactionary character of this region was manifested early on when General Hugo Banzer from Santa Cruz overthrew a leftist general backed by a popular assembly in 1971, ruling the country with an iron hand for seven years, much like the military regimes in other countries in the Southern cone that took power in the 1970s.4
The IMF reforms of 1985 privileged the role of Santa Cruz vis-à-vis other parts of the country. With the privatization and closure of many of the state tin mines in the Andean highlands, tens of thousands of miners were thrown out of work. Many migrated to the Chapare region in the south-central part of the country, becoming coca farmers, while others went to the east to squat on small patches of land and serve as an agrarian labor force for the large estates that were favored with credits and infrastructure loans backed by the World Bank. Then in the 1990s vast tracts of land were turned over to the cultivation of soybeans, and by the turn of the century Bolivia’s export revenue from soy production was second in importance only to that of the natural gas and oil fields.
The rise of this agribusiness complex has plundered the natural resources of eastern Bolivia. As the frontier for soybeans advances further into the rainforests, the older depleted lands are either abandoned or turned into extensive cattle grazing pastures. Given the highly mechanized nature of soy farming, there are few employment opportunities in the countryside for either the local indigenous population or for those who migrate from the Andes searching for work. As Miguel Urioste, the director of the Land Foundation in La Paz, explains: “This mono export model — promoted actively by the World Bank for 15 years — is a lamentable demonstration of how, those that decide public policies . . . in the third world, do not take into account the enormous environmental costs or the lamentable economic and political effects produced by this model. The monocultivation of soy has concentrated land in a few hands, it has transnationalized property rights, it has impeded new humanely planned settlements, and concentrated thousands of poor peasants without lands to generate wealth, employment and well being.”5
While Bolivia ranks among the world’s ten top soy exporters, the production of domestic foodstuffs by the peasantry has stagnated or declined and the urban population has come to rely more and more on imported grains. Today Bolivia imports sixty-nine percent of its wheat, forty-five percent of its rice, and forty-two percent of its corn.6 In 2004, even the World Bank was compelled to admit: “the rural economy is increasingly polarised between the small peasant sector producing foodstuffs, on the one hand, and the agro-enterprise sector producing cash crops for export, on the other.”7
The Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, a business organization led by agribusiness interests, is at the center of the drive for provincial autonomy. According to Bret Gustafson, an analyst of the Santa Cruz elite and its political and cultural institutions: “The Civic Committee is an unelected entity dominated by business and agro-industrial elites who have a long history of resisting control of, and demanding subsidization by, the central government. Typical business members include the private chamber of commerce, the cattlemen, the agro-livestock chamber, the industrialists, the forestry chamber, the soy-producers chamber, and professional organizations (doctors, lawyers, architects). Other “civic” members include representatives of provincial civic committees, of carnival comparsas, and of social clubs or “fraternities.”8
Branko Marinkovic, the powerful head of the Civic Committee whose parents migrated to Bolivia from Croatia in the 1950s, is the largest landowner in the country with 300,000 hectares, much of it obtained for pennies or fraudulent maneuvers under past dictatorial and oligarchic governments.9 He also has considerable business investments, including IOL S.A., one of Bolivia’s largest soy and sunflower processing plants. A political ideologue of the autonomy movement, Marinkovic funds and sits on the board of the think tank Fundacion Libertad y Democracia that has ties to the Heritage and Cato Foundations.10
The Cruceño Youth Union (UJC), a junior men’s organization affiliated with the Civic Committee, is the strong arm of the Civic Committee, often acting as shock troops for the autonomy movement. During the plebiscite in May, its members, mainly in their teens and early twenties, roamed the streets of the city of Santa Cruz and surrounding towns, violently attacking and repressing any opposition to the referendum by local indigenous movements and MAS-allied forces. Not wanting to provoke a violent confrontation, Evo Morales did not deploy the army or use the local police, leaving the urban areas under the effective control of the UJC when the voting took place.
The other less densely inhabited provinces in the east that make up what is called the Media Luna — Pando, Beni, and Tarija — have held referendums calling for autonomy under similar conditions. On the national level, the major political party of the right, Podemos (We Can) tied up the efforts of a popularly elected Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution for over a year and it is now maneuvering with other political forces in La Paz to block a national referendum to enact the constitution.
Simultaneously, the right wing led by the Civic Committee is sewing economic instability, seeking to destabilize the Morales government much like the CIA-backed opposition did in Chile against Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. As in Chile the business elites and allied truckers engage in “strikes,” withholding or refusing to ship produce to the urban markets while selling commodities in the black market at high prices that cause alarm among the poor. The national Confederation of Private Businesses of Bolivia is calling for a national producers’ shutdown if the government “does not change its economic policies.”11
The social movements allied with the government are mobilizing against the right wing. In the Media Luna, a union coalition of indigenous peoples and peasants has campaigned against voting in the autonomy referendums and taken on the bands of the UJC as they try to intimidate and terrorize people. In the Andean highlands, the social movements have descended on La Paz in demonstrations backing the government, including a large mobilization on June 10 that stormed the American embassy because of its support for the right wing, particularly over the US refusal to extradite a past president who ordered the shooting of demonstrators in the streets in 2003. Because of this growing unrest, the country is awash with rumors of a coup, and Morales went to a summit in Caracas in mid-June with Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Carlos Lage, vice president of Cuba, to discuss how to defend his government.
The ability of the agrarian interests of Bolivia to take the country to the brink of civil war is reflective of the powerful agrarian bourgeoisies that have arisen in many countries of the third world in tandem with global agribusiness. When national governments attempt to control the steep increase in food prices, or popular movements agitate for agrarian reform and food sovereignty, they encounter powerful internal agro-industrial interests, in effect a fifth column nurtured and developed by the multinational corporations in conjunction with the World Bank and the IMF.
This new configuration of power is particularly manifest in South America. In Argentina when President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner tried to levy an export tax on soybeans, the large growers orchestrated a rebellion that has tied up the country’s exports and food marketing system for over three months. In neighboring Brazil, the agrarian bourgeoisie is perhaps the strongest and most entrenched in the Global South. Over the years it has fought a running war with the Landless Movement, violently repressing the efforts of the poor to peacefully occupy and till idle lands. In October last year at the genetically modified seed experimental station of Syngenta (the world’s largest agrichemical corporation) five peaceful demonstrators were shot and one killed: The NT Security company that carried out the attack has close ties to the Rural Society, a right-wing growers association known for repeated acts of violence against the Landless Movement.12
Some argue that that we are witnessing the rise of “petro-fascism” as multinational corporations and nation states struggle for control of the life-blood of the global economy.13 Now with the efforts of the multinational agribusiness corporations and the agrarian bourgeoisies to control the very sustenance of human life, we may be facing an even more violent period of repression, conflict, and upheaval.
1 Ximena Soruco (Coordinador), Wilfredo Plata, and Gustavo Medeiros, Los Barones del Oriente: El Poder en Santa Cruz Ayer y Hoy, Fundación Tierra, Observatorio de la Revolución Agraria en Bolivia, La Paz, Bolivia, pp. 206-12.
2 For a description of how the IMF and the World Bank imposed these structural adjustment programs on other countries in the Global South, see Walden Bello, “Manufacturing a Food Crisis,” The Nation, June 2, 2008.
3 Cristóbal Kay and Miguel Urioste, “Bolivia’s Unfinished Agrarian Reform: Rural Poverty and Development Policies,” ISS/UNDP Land, Poverty and Public Action, Policy Paper No. 3, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands and United Nations Development Program, New York, NY, October, 2005, p. 11-13.
4 Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Popular Struggle in Bolivia, Verso Press, London, 2007, pp. 85-6.
5 Miguel Urioste, “El Banco Mundial Promovio los Moncultivos en Bolivia Durante 15 Anos,” Fundación Tierra, May, 2008.
7 Kay and Urisote, p. 15.
8 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, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2006, p. 363.
9 BolPress, “Movilización para Aplastar la Conspiración Oligárquico-Imperialista en Bolivia,” Unidad de Promoción Indigena y Campesina, Boletin N. 45, 20 de Mayo, 2008.
10 Bret Gustafson, “By Means Legal and Otherwise: The Bolivian Right Regroups,” NACLA Report on the Americas, January/February, 2008, p. 25.
11 La Prensa, “La CEPB Amenaza con Paro y el Gobierno Percibe Complot,” La Paz, June 21, 2008.
12 Isabella Kenfeld and Roger Burbach, “Corporate Murder in Brazil: Landless Rural Worker Shot by Security Company Hired by Multinational Syngenta,” Strategic Studies, Global Alternatives, October, 2007.
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, CA. He has written extensively on Latin America and US foreign policy. His first book, co-authored with Patricia Flynn, was Agribusiness in the Americas. See www.globalalternatives.org for CENSA activities and publications. Special thanks to Isabella Kenfield for her editorial assistance. This article first appeared in Bolivia Rising on 30 June 2008.