Polyarchy in Santa Cruz

An analysis of the different power structures

Who governs the city? This is a question one constantly asks about the young city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, South America. Certainly it is not only the mayoralty, the private sector (market), or the government but a polyarchy that works simultaneously against and with it’s many power entities.

Santa Cruz, is an example of governance which is completely polarized between different public and private entities. The municipality has lost almost all control over the city. This can be read in the weak control that municipality can impose on new politics, regulations, and most evidently on the poor urban planning of the city. Reflecting on this loss of control we will then find out how has this happened.

I shall explain the varied ways of representation that the city has had since it was a small town and what form of power has the representation taken. The current illegal drugs business will be taken into consideration in order to understand it’s apparently invisible effects on the city’s economy and power groups.

Using Santa Cruz as an example of a democracy or constitution, which is virtually the same of municipalities in many parts of Europe or America would use, I will show that local issues might turn out to blur the ideal of representational democracy.

To understand the actual composition of power in the city of Santa Cruz one needs to be aware of it’s geopolitical and economical situation in relation to the rest of Bolivia. Santa Cruz is located in the Amazon region of Bolivia which occupies more than 60 % of the country’s territory and differs from the idea that the world has about Bolivia which usually relates only to the Andes, the highland, and lake Titicaca.


Fig. 1: South American Map


Fig. 2: Geographical representation of Bolivia

Brief History of the exercise of power in Santa Cruz de la Sierra

Since it’s founding in 1561 as a result of the search of EL Dorado by spanish explorers until the start of the rubber boom in 1880 (the start of the Republican era) the city survives marginally and without significant changes. During colonial times, the slave trade was the most lucrative business and it provided a workforce for the mines in the occidental part of Bolivia.

Fig. 3: A farming scene from colonial times

Fig. 4: Alcides d’Orbigny drawing showing a tribe

Under these circumstances and not having found gold deposits that were supposed to be in the region, the population is forced to engage in agriculture to survive, however the native population are treated as slaves and have to work the land. Thus, the possession of land is the main source of power in Santa Cruz.

Once installed the republic in 1825 and until 1880, the marginal situation remains unchanged keeping the city far away from political and economical actions. The ruling class continued to supply itself and it was conformed by spanish or mestizos (descendants of the spanish) so we could say that the power structures were organized under racial principles.

Up until 1920 Santa Cruz had almost no relation with the national government and commerce existed only to satisfy the demands of the city. Merchandise was only bought by the people of Santa Cruz and very few things where exported as potential markets where unreachable due to the long distances and poor road conditions.

All of the economic activity happened in the Andes region of Bolivia. Mines are located in the occidental part of the country and these are responsible for most of the revenue that Bolivia produces. Santa Cruz, having no minerals to extract relied on the business produced from selling rubber.

During the rubber boom between 1880 and 1915, there was a large demand for the material and Santa Cruz took advantage and rapidly grew. The city played a key role connecting traffic with northern regions that produced rubber. Many people from Santa Cruz moved north, established rubber extracting companies that recruited indigenous populations by force who were obliged to work in a state of semi slavery. After having finished the extraction of rubber, they came back to Santa Cruz and invested what they had earned from the rubber business. During this time, livestock and agriculture became less important. Little was left of the rubber boom in later times, the lack of vision and planing of the ruling class spending the profit on luxury items which made ventures aimed to promote economy in medium and long terms unachievable.

Fig. 5: Luxurious home during the rubber boom in 1888

Fig.6: Sirionos indians in 1930

After the fall of the rubber price in the international market in 1914, the economy of Santa Cruz enters into a recession that extends until the Chaco war in 1936, when the region was obliged to provide the battle fronts. This war determined the inclusion of the Santa Cruz region with the rest of the country. A road connecting Santa Cruz with the rest of Bolivia was built and a railroad to Brazil and Argentina was constructed.

In 1937 the state owned petroleum company (YPFB) was founded and this brought improvements to the local economy.

Another important factor that changed the local economy but in a way that only private interests were improved was the creation of a set of laws that adjudicated land to future owners for free and allowed them to sell their newly obtained property. The owners of the property property considered that the indigenous inhabitants were also part of their new belongings. This belief shows the character of power in this and later times.

The agricultural revolution of 1952 chaired by the president of Bolivia at the time, Victor Paz Estenssoro, which aimed towards a better repartition of agricultural land did not interfere with the growing agricultural sector in Santa Cruz and neither did the subsequent military dictatorships (1963-1982), therefore allowing the mentioned sector to continue growing. The revolution of 1952 could have greatly affected the sector but as Santa Cruz was still very marginated from national political debate it dealt most of political issues privately. Also, the revolution supported the migration of people from the highland to Santa Cruz providing cheap labour and expanding the productive possibilities of the old land owners to convert agricultural industry.

The majority of the land is still owned by few: 76,000 entrepreneurs owe 22 million hectares while 78,000 farmers owe only 3 million hectares.

Fig. 7: A street in the year 1897

Fig. 8: Santa Cruz in 1887

Fig. 9: Santa Cruz in 2012

Economical and demographical expansion after the 40s

Demographically Santa Cruz has exploded thanks to establishing itself as the most important economic sector in Bolivia and the massive migration from the departments in the west. In 50 years the inhabitants have increased from 46000 to almost 2 million.

Autonomy and a more independent approach to regional issues has been a request from the people of Santa Cruz to the national government. People want the representatives of Santa Cruz to have more freedom when deciding how to govern Santa Cruz.

Representational democracy in the city of Santa Cruz is held between the interests of the city and the interests of the state. The actual Bolivian president, Evo Morales has low popularity in the region due to his rejection on yielding more autonomy to Santa Cruz, in spite that he was elected with a majority of votes in 2006 as the first indigenous president. Many efforts are made in order to increase the president’s popularity in the eastern region. Political control of the region is sought simply because an opposition party had control of the municipality of Santa Cruz. Percy Fernandez, the actual major of Santa Cruz has had to agree and provide a political agenda that is accepted by the central government in order to still govern even though of his high popularity.

Fig. 10: Evo Morales

Fig. 10: Evo Morales

Problems of relationship with the government not only occur in the public and political sector but also occur in the private, capitalistic entrepreneurship part of society in which almost a unilateral dialogue must take place with the government in order to still be able to produce revenue and production. A clear example of government policy that directly affects production is one which dictates that companies must first be able to supply the internal market in order to to be able to export. This has heavy effects on prices and the ability that firms have to export due to confusing unstable regulations.

With the actual political state of Bolivia, the private sector must work with the government no matter what the middle class public opinion expresses. The majority of the middle class in Santa Cruz is against the political strategy of Morales who is a socialist  but due to the political terror he is imposing, the private sector is forced to ignore the requests of the middle class. Autonomy and the decentralization of politics are requests by the middle class but the private sector needs to be economically active and to keep on producing and exporting, a harmonious relationship with the government is needed.

Fig. 11: Demonstration showing support for autonomy in 2009

Fig. 11: Demonstration showing support for autonomy in 2009

The agroindustrial sector is one which has ignored regional requests and has focused only on it’s political relationship with the government. Before adopting a collaborative working policy with the government the agroindustrial sector supported campaigns of autonomy that went against governmental policy. Once the government started to affect the economical profit of the private sector then support coming from this large economic power group started to fade away and concentrated on achieving private goals.

Power Structures in Santa Cruz

Although Santa Cruz has a short history as a city, one can appreciate in a very short period of time (around 50 years) various type of governance. At the beginning the agriculture sector was the one that played the role of the “signore” in the european middle-age centuries. We could even say that there was almost a direct democracy due to the lack of relationship with the national government and the small population that the city had. Then, with time, economical, technological, and migration happenings the private sector became powerful enough to become an agroindustrial economy in which the decisions made in the sector could not be controlled by the municipality.

The power in Santa Cruz is divided in many groups. In this article I will write about the most important ones, the agroindustrial sector, the professional middle class, and an informal sector. These groups differ in their power and importance towards the state and citizenship but every single one of them must be explained in order to understand the power structure in Santa Cruz.

The most important of them is the agroindustrial sector of the economy. Historically, this sector has had much importance in regional political representation but has now developed to become an important industry that constantly deals with the government.

Lodges and fraternities are a power group which are quickly losing power thanks to the rapidly growing professional middle class and the almost spontaneous rise of the informal sector. In the past, lodges had much power due to the fact that they established electricity, telephone, and water services. A “civic committee”, was founded without any legal representation but was in charge of the defense of Santa Cruz interests. Initially, it was controlled by lodges but now it’s led by economic power. Facing the enormous migration from the Andes region, the civic committee tried to define an identity for Santa Cruz (festivals, meeting, conferences). Lately “pre-Columbian values” have been considered and fused to the new identity profile as an answer to the official ideology of the central government.

The informal sector constitutes the most interesting, newest and fastest growing power in Santa Cruz and employs more than half of the active population. This sector includes cooperatives, unionists, and immigrants. Their huge power can be felt in their control of public transport and markets. They handle vast amounts of money but almost all of this sector does not pay taxes and half of the people in this group belongs to some cooperative or union. The informal sector is not a leading group, it doesn’t have a strong identity, and neither has a clear conscience of the economic power that it posses.

Fig. 12: Informal market

Fig. 12: Informal market

From local municipality to metropolitan governance 

A problem that Santa Cruz must confront urgently is the chaos that a non-metropolitan municipality causes to the urban and logistical organization of the city. The rapid expansion of the city has occurred so quickly that it has surpassed the area that the municipality of Santa Cruz is responsible for. Large parts of the city, located in the peripheral areas of the city, are now under jurisdiction of other municipalities but these make decisions independetnly, maintaining no working relationship with the municipality of Santa Cruz. One could think that a system of municipalities could work for a metropolitan progress goal but at the moment there is no collaborative work happening.

Fig. 13: Graphic showing urban growth

Fig. 13: Graphic showing urban growth

This lack of metropolitan control is similar to the one a city like Milan experiences with the difference that the city of Milan has already psychologically recognized itself as the centre of a metropolitan area. This is not the case with Santa Cruz. The inhabitants and authorities still look at Santa Cruz as the small town it once was. An immediate change from a local point of view into a broader, global perspective, must be adopted in order to retake control of the city.

Fig. 14: Satellite image showing Santa Cruz

Fig. 14: Satellite image showing Santa Cruz

Drug business – the hidden economical, political, and social power

Bolivian law allows only 12,000 hectares of coca plants to be cultivated but this area increased to almost 30,000 hectares. The uncontrolled production of coca leafs and the deportation of the North American drug enforcement agency from Bolivia has meant a huge increase in the amount of illegal drugs produced. The drug production and bussines at the moment belong to the indigenous class. Drug business creates an artificial invisible economy which alters prices heavily and affects the middle class. Poor countries are very prone to corruption and if drugs are included then corruption is very likely to happen. At a certain point the drug business will take a place with it’s economic power in the political government and that will be the most difficult stage.

Fig. 15: Drug seized by the police

Fig. 15: Drug seized by the police

Fig. 16: Coca plantations

Fig. 16: Coca plantations


After having looked at the different power structures that exist, understanding the ambiguity of representational democracy, being aware of the rapid changes in representation, analyzing problems which arise from drugs deals one can confirm that it is definitely a polyarchy which rules Santa Cruz. This polyarchy needs to work together to develop a brighter future for the city. If it continues to work as it is doing now, Santa Cruz will suffer the consequences and become even more chaotic.

It is difficult to compare the history of power, governance and democracy in different societies and continents, that is why I chose the city where I was born to analyze and compare the european and latin american realities. I found inspiring what David Castells says about how different societies find their own way towards progress: “Each society has to define it’s own terms of progress. In function of their own culture will have their own scale of priorities that can differ significantly from other societies. Starting from this scale of priorities the progress will be different from one society to the other. ”

Fig. 17: Chaos in the city centre

Fig. 17: Chaos in the city centre


Sandoval Ribera, Angel (2011): 450 Años, Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Santa Cruz: Imprenta Landiar

Claudia Peña Claros, Fernando Prado Salmon (2007): Poder y Elites en Santa Cruz: Tres visiones sobre un mismo tema. Santa Cruz: Editorial El País

Limpias Ortiz, Victor Hugo (2010): Plan Techint, Medio siglo de urbanismo moderno en Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Santa Cruz: Editorial El País

d’Orbigny, Alcides (1996): Viajes por Bolivia. La Paz: Impresión Quipus S.R.L.

Jordan, Pedro Rivero (2012): Y sin embargo te quiero. Santa Cruz, El Deber

Jordan, Pedro Rivero (2010): 200 años, 1810-2012. Santa Cruz, El Deber


Fig. 1: http://www.questconnect.org/images/south_america_pol98.jpg

Fig. 2: http://www.boliviabella.com/images/bolivia_facts_geography_map_topography.gif

Fig. 3: Tufi, Are: (2012) Un grito de libertad, Santa Cruz Imparable, El Deber

Fig. 4: d’Orbigny, Alcides (1996): Viajes por Bolivia. Pg. 147, La Paz: Impresión Quipus S.R.L.

Fig. 5, 6 , 7, 8: Pg. 117, Pg. 40, Pg. 73, Pg. 71 Sandoval Ribera, Angel (2011): 450 Años, Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Pg. 117  Santa Cruz: Imprenta Landiar

Fig. 9 : Roberto, Doti (2012) 2012, nos hizo vibrar hasta el final de sus días. El Deber

Fig. 10: http://www.informador.com.mx/internacional/2012/416604/6/morales-justifica- aumento-de-patrimonio-personal.htm

Fig. 11: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Cabildo-Millon.jpg

Fig. 12: Limpias Ortiz, Victor Hugo (2010): Plan Techint, Medio siglo de urbanismo moderno en Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Pg. 121 Santa Cruz: Editorial El País

Fig. 13: Google earth

Fig. 15-17: Doti, Roberto, Desafíos del país, en nuestras manos (2011) El Deber


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