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When Bolivia’s president Evo Morales addressed an audience of business leaders at a plush resort hotel in the country’s largest and wealthiest city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in December, no one doubted its importance. It was only the second time in the past two years that Morales had met in front of the cameras with the powerbrokers of Santa Cruz, and it represents a fragile rapprochement between Bolivia’s first indigenous president and the white and mestizo monied urban elite. They run the gas-rich province of Santa Cruz that is the country’s breadbasket, economic and industrial heartland – and bastion of anti-Morales sentiment.

Not on this day though. “People who use my name to occupy lands and take over property illegally will be jailed,” said Morales, referring to indigenous farmers recently squatting on land in Santa Cruz, prompting applause from businessmen at the red-wine lunch.

Since coming to power in 2005, Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (mas) political party have received scant applause from the movers and shakers of Bolivia concentrated in this city of 1.45 million people. Opposition towards Morales culminated in 2008 when right-wing leaders in Santa Cruz spearheaded a failed referendum that sought greater regional autonomy from the capital, La Paz, an 18-hour and 987km-drive away.

Many cruceños, as the locals of Santa Cruz are known, have long been at odds with Morales’ socialist policies, such as his energy-sector nationalisation drive, increasing of state control over the economy, export restrictions, and changes to laws, which they believe have stifled economic growth in Santa Cruz and the landlocked Andean nation as a whole.

“Santa Cruz is the pillar of Bolivia’s agro-industry that feeds 70 per cent of Bolivians. It’s where all the country’s resources are, so it’s important for growth and a big pull factor for investment,” says Luis Barbery, head of the Chamber of Industry, Commerce, Services and Tourism of Santa Cruz (cainco), sitting in an armchair in one of the business suites in the city’s Los Tajibos hotel. “In Santa Cruz we believe that we can solve big problems on our own through better infrastructure and the private sector. Our vision of the county is different. We try to depend less on the state.”

Both sides have accepted the need to compromise, hence Morales’ criticism of some of his own supporters. “Tensions have lowered since 2008,” admits Barbery. “We’ve made some progress but it hasn’t been easy.”It won’t get any easier this year. Morales is up for re-election in December and Santa Cruz will be the opposition’s stronghold.

A key reason why Morales, an Aymara Indian, garners little support in Santa Cruz is because it has always stood out from the rest of the country, both in its geography and the way cruceños see themselves. The main road between Santa Cruz and La Paz was built in the 1980s. Until then, Santa Cruz was effectively cut off from the rest of the country.

“There’s a spirit of entrepreneurship, being self-efficient and self-dependent here,” says Gabriel Dabdoub, head of the influential Federation of Private Companies of Santa Cruz, at the business event.

Santa Cruz lies in the east and with its lush lowland plains and humid climate it couldn’t be more different from the image that often first comes to mind of Bolivia – a land of llamas, chilly Andean highlands, mining areas and the coca-producing region of Cochabamba in the country’s mountainous west, where Morales, a former coca farmer, has his power base.

It also partly explains why Santa Cruz epitomises the social and political tensions facing Bolivia today and its longstanding battle between its highland and lowland regions. On any given balmy evening at Santa Cruz’s well-kept main square lined with white colonnaded colonial buildings and an art-deco cinema, locals play chess, couples kiss and women dressed in hip-hugging clothes chatting leisurely on park benches under palm trees. Overlooking the square, cruceños drink beer on rooftop balconies.

This relaxed, more open and less conservative atmosphere is hard to find elsewhere in Bolivia. It stems from the waves of Bolivians migrating from other parts of the country and foreigners settling in Santa Cruz to tap into some of the most fertile and cheapest land to be had in Latin America.

From the 60,000-strong Mennonite community of German origin, along with the Japanese who settled in Santa Cruz and across Bolivia from the 1950s onwards, to the more recent wave of thousands of Brazilian students studying medicine on the cheap and Brazilian and Argentine soy farmers crossing the border, it’s a unique melting pot of immigrants in Bolivia.

“Santa Cruz has always been a province of immigrants, a place of pioneers open to change and who’ve contributed their bit to its growth and agro-industry,” says Juan Carlos Peredo, former head of the Confederation of Cattle Ranchers, who left the post in February this year.

Dominating the immigrant population are Brazilian large-scale farmers who are major players in the soy business, the country’s third-biggest foreign currency earner.

“Brazilians came to Santa Cruz in the 1980s attracted by the good soil and cheap land at the time,” says João Raymundo, who heads the Chamber for Bolivian-Brazilian Commerce in Santa Cruz. “Brazilians like me who’ve settled here have always been well-received. I saw then and still see great potential in Santa Cruz for growth. Whatever Santa Cruz produces there’s a market for it in Brazil. It’s a dynamic and young city.

And its low crime rate is a big part of what it means to have a good quality of life.” The foreign investors setting up shop in Santa Cruz are fuelling the local economy, which grew nearly 8.6 per cent last year. Across the sprawling city, cranes dot the skyline. Its international airport is being expanded, US-inspired massive shopping malls, convention centres, chain hotels, private universities and high-end white apartment blocks with glass balconies are sprouting up.

Catering for Santa Cruz’s rising middle class that makes up 40 per cent of the local population – nearly double that of any other city in Bolivia – are clothing boutiques, beauty salons, coffee and ice-cream parlours along clean, paved avenues. On the city’s outskirts, warehouses sell tractors, heavy machinery and anything else that’s needed to grow food crops.

At night, the well-heeled residents of Santa Cruz whiz around the affluent Equipetrol neighbourhood in party limousines and open-top Porsches and Hummers. Women with coiffured hair and sparkling dresses pack sushi and Champagne bars, sipping on martinis and decent Bolivian wine. “The city’s expansion and population growth has been rapid. There wasn’t even a supermarket here 15 years ago,” says Raymundo. “Yet it’s still a village and you know your neighbour.”

It’s a village that is attracting more residents. Santa Cruz’s population has risen from 40,000 in 1950 to today’s figure nearing two million people. Yet the wealth Santa Cruz generates has not trickled down to many indigenous subsistence farmers, miners and coca growers living elsewhere in the country. Bolivia still remains Latin America’s poorest nation, where 43.4 per cent of its 10.4 million population live in poverty – on less than $2 a day. For many Bolivians, Santa Cruz is the only city that offers the opportunity of social mobility.

Morales is the favourite to win a third term in December but the Santa Cruz-based opposition believe there are increasing numbers of Bolivians – including those from indigenous groups – who feel let down by the President. The question is whether right-wing cruceños will have any chance of exploiting that dissatisfaction.

Senator Germán Antelo, a brain surgeon and leading figure in the right-wing opposition movement in Santa Cruz, exudes confidence. “The mas party generated huge expectations for better and greater land distribution. This socialist discourse doesn’t work. Reality on the ground is different,” says Antelo at his surgery.

“We believe there should be an alternative to mas. A new alternative for Bolivia where there’s a separation and independence of powers between the judicial, executive and legislature branches. Bolivia needs political diversity. You can’t run a country by one party, by one vision. Everything is concentrated towards the state and public sector. The new country we want is coming from Santa Cruz.”

Many Bolivians would strongly disagree. But on Antelo’s final point, most would concur. “What happens in Santa Cruz is pivotal for Bolivia and affects the whole of the country.”

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