The colorful controversy surrounding 63-year-old Ronald Larsen is enough to attract anyone’s attention. He was born in America – Montana, no less – and now lives on a working ranch in Bolivia. His entrepreneurial skills have favored the poor Guarani Indians since his arrival in 1968. His 37,000-acre ranch, however, has put him at odds with Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, whose socialist and confiscatory land reform program is breaking up large rural estates in order to distribute them to the indigenous population.
The ideological struggle came to a head in early May when the Santa Cruz region of Eastern Bolivia, where Mr. Larsen resides, voted overwhelmingly in favor of an “autonomy referendum.” The electoral decision of the people, which Evo Morales has hotly contested, would simply give the region a more healthy independence and protection of their land, although it is being universally presented as a movement of secession.
A Hollywoodian Theme of Class Struggle
A recent New York Times article1 on the subject portrayed Mr. Larsen with his “weathered features” as someone “resembling Clint Eastwood.” The photo accompanying the piece showed Guarani Indians working Larsen’s cattle on horseback was worth much more than the proverbial “thousand words.” The expressive title, “American Rancher Resists Land Reform Plans in Bolivia,” conjured up cowboy movie scenarios with shootouts at the “OK Corral.”
The cowboy-and-Indian theme was echoed in a Time magazine article2 about Mr. Larsen, where the story was called the “stuff of an old-fashioned Western movie.” This article portrayed President Morales as a defender of the “indigenous population” and stereotyped his political opponents with the stigma of being “backed by the country’s wealthy eastern elite.” The typical class-struggle scenario theme, promoted by the communist-minded since time immemorial, is thus presented with vivid Hollywoodian imagery. It’s the “haves” against the “have nots” all over again.
Within such a drama, one’s attention cannot help but be drawn toward the plight of poor Guarani Indians who are caught in the middle. Land reform schemes like those being implemented by President Morales have been dismal failures in neighboring Brazil and so many other countries throughout the world, yet land reform is now being presented as the solution for Bolivia’s indigenous people.
Reading about an American who has become a central figure in the whole issue, I could not resist contacting this “Clint Eastwood” of Bolivia to see which side was truly wearing the white hat.
Mr. Larsen explained that the land reform program implemented by Evo Morales forced him to break up his ranch between his three sons, all Bolivian citizens, since it exceeded the 25,000-acre limit set by the socialist program. He has been involved in resisting land reform and claims the government is pursuing him with trumped-up charges.
“When you have a wolf at the door”, he said “you need to find out what you can do.”
Conditions of Workers
The size of his land is not the only problem. Angry government ministers not able to take his ranch through theft have now resorted to deception. Accusations that Mr. Larsen has slaves are being echoed throughout the national media and represent a more serious threat that his sons’ property could be “reverted” back to the state. If this happens he and his sons will be given 19 days to leave the premises with only the shirts on their backs while everything else goes to the government.
The twelve families who live on his ranch are not exactly living the lives of slaves. All of them reside on the ranch in separate houses provided by Mr. Larsen. Each house has a fireplace, kitchen and running water; commodities not enjoyed by his neighbors.
“Indian communities don’t generally have running water”, Mr. Larsen said. The minimum wage in Bolivia is $65 a month. School teachers make only $90 a month yet Mr. Larsen’s employees earn twice that amount. Along with a decent wage he also provides his workers with subsidized prices for basic foodstuffs.
“It’s a way of making people’s money go further”, he said. Things such as beef and pork can be purchased for only 25 cents a pound while sugar, rice and wheat flour go for 12 cents a pound.
This is a big help considering the flour shortage in Bolivia. For years, the United States government, as part of a giveaway program to help underdeveloped countries, has given Bolivia a yearly gift of 6000 tons of flour. This year, Evo Morales arbitrarily decided to turn it down without even considering the hardship it would bring to the people he purports to defend.
“A Good Boss”
Families associated with Mr. Larsen’s ranch not only enjoy financial privileges but also educational ones. One of the first things he did upon arriving in Bolivia was build a primary school. In 2003, he had to build an addition because of the growing attendance. He now has two teachers and 32 Guarani Indian students; children of his workers.
“We are very proud of our teachers,” he said, “they not only teach music and art classes but also the traditional native Bolivian folk dancing from that area called chacarera. The name originates from the word “chacra” which means “farm”, as it was usually danced in rural areas. When important people visit, the students, dressed in native Bolivian costumes, put on a dance and play their music.
Mr. Esteban Cabrera has worked for Mr. Larsen for over 35 years and said, during a telephone interview, that all of his seven children studied at Mr. Larsen’s school. Mr. Larsen, who he described as “a good boss,” paid the tuition and other expenses for their education. He is so grateful that he appeared on a local television station to speak in Larson’s defense.
“Because of the help that Mr. Larsen gave me,” he said, “I was able to buy my own home. Those that accuse Mr. Larsen of having enslaved the workers don’t know what it means to be a slave.”
Mr. Larsen also lends his time and organizational skills to a local orphanage and a daycare center, which cares for over 200 children of unwed mothers. It is a work he described as “really exciting because we put the kids through high school. Our whole premise is that nobody comes out of our orphanage to be a maid or shoe shine boy.”
Some go on to attend university, where they earn degrees in business or accounting, while others attend technical schools to learn a trade.
When students graduate from college or high school in Bolivia, it is a common practice for them to choose a padriño (“little godfather”) or sponsor. Mr. Larsen showed a great pride in mentioning that one of the girls from his orphanage, who is now graduating from a local Catholic university, chose him as her padriño.
The harsh images of a Clint Eastwood-type cowboy from Montana exploiting poor Indians in Bolivia somehow fades in the face of a paternalistic “padriño.”
If Evo Morales really cared about the Guarani Indians in Bolivia he would support, rather than persecute such a man. While he calls himself a socialist, his actions are identical to those perpetrated by communist ideologues over the last century and a half. Karl Marx said you can reduce Communism to one thing: the destruction of private property. This is because property brings inequality which is hateful to communists.
Ever since Marx called the “workers of the world to unite,” we have seen empty promises of prosperity for the working class. The very ones who promise to end poverty are the ones who impoverish the most people. Redistribution of wealth becomes a catch word for robbery while the equality established is one of misery.
The world’s attention is often turned towards the hunger in Africa, nations like Zimbabwe, yet the root cause is often ignored. Through a land reform program identical to that of Evo Morales, Robert Mugabe confiscated white-owned lands to “help the poor.” In so doing, he took a nation that was once considered the “breadbasket of Africa” and transformed it into a land of hunger with four million people suffering from food shortages.
Fidel Castro came to power by hypnotizing Catholic Cubans with a rosary conspicuously hanging around his neck. He declared himself a defender of the poor yet has left a decades-long trail of desolation.
Evo Morales has a great sympathy for communist dictator Fidel Castro and shares his dislike for America. Having a generous American like Ronald Larsen under his nose illustrating the fruits of free enterprise and private property is the last thing on earth he wants.
His altruistic promises in favor of the poor are the same as those of the communist dictators who are responsible for the most unspeakable atrocities in history. One can only imagine what plans he has for landowners in Bolivia. Although some may consider Evo Morales to be as innocent as a lamb, Ronald Larsen does well to consider him a “wolf at the door,” even if he is still wearing sheep’s clothing.
- Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, “U.S. Rancher in Bolivia Showdown,” Time, May 2, 2008, at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1737244,00.html.