Posted on August 16, 2004

Bolivian Beauty Queens Highlight Nation’s Racial, Regional Differences

Tyler Bridges, Knight Ridder, (SC), August 13, 2004

Tall, blonde and thin, Maria Rene Antelo doesn’t look like the stereotypical Bolivian, and perhaps that is why she is in one of the country’s top models.

Antelo is one of “Las Magnificas,” as the 35 similar-looking women of Bolivia’s top modeling agency, based in this eastern lowlands city, are called.

But more than beauty, Las Magnificas symbolize the racial and political differences between the lighter-skinned Santa Cruz region and the mostly Indian regions of La Paz in Bolivia’s western mountains — differences that came to the fore in a recent national referendum on whether to export the country’s huge natural gas reserves.

La Paz, the country’s political capital, lies in the cold Andean region 12,000 feet above sea level that is home to increasingly restive Aymara and Quechua Indians who believe that the white elite has long kept them from enjoying the benefits of the country’s natural resources.

Santa Cruz is the business capital, a hot and humid plains state that has gone from 100,000 residents in 1950 to 2.1 million today, with entrepreneurs, oil men and large-scale soy farmers being its most public face.

“Businessmen from Santa Cruz see themselves as being from the ‘productive’ Bolivia,” said Oscar Ortiz, general manager of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Business and Industry. “They see La Paz as not being economically productive, as being the site of social conflicts, street demonstrations.”

Most of the Indians in the west remain deeply suspicious of the promised benefits from gas exports. They believe that the government should nationalize the gas, now in the hands of U.S., British, Spanish and Brazilian companies, and use it first to lower home energy costs and create jobs.

It was Indians in the west who led the street violence last October that toppled President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who wanted to export the gas to Chile, Bolivia’s hated southern neighbor.

Santa Cruz, which is both a city and a state, is controlled by light-skinned businessmen who seem to have the frontier mentality of Texans. They say they just want to be left alone to do business deals and make money — some of which has come from the region’s coca farms.

And they can’t understand why President Carlos Mesa, who replaced Sanchez de Lozada, had to seek public approval in the referendum before moving forward with plans to tap into the gas reserves.

The hopes and aspirations for eastern Bolivia are expressed in the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, which advocates more autonomy from La Paz. Ruben Costas, the group’s leader, views those in the west with obvious disdain.

“They oppose gas exports because they want a social explosion, a civil war,” Costas said. “It’s not true that this is an indigenous country,” he added, disputing census figures showing that 62 percent of Bolivians identify themselves as Indian. “We’re 80 percent mestizo (mixed blood).”

Bolivians have long obsessed over the differences between east and west in their small land-locked nation. To be sure, however, Bolivia cannot be neatly divided into two.

Antonio Aranibar, who has studied the two regions for the U.N. Development Program, said the strong economic growth of Santa Cruz in recent years has attracted several hundred thousand immigrants from the west. They now make up 33 percent of Santa Cruz’ population. And La Paz, he added, has a white social and economic elite, although not as powerful as the one in Santa Cruz.

Aranibar said other significant differences remain between the two regions.

“Foreign investment goes now to Santa Cruz because there is less risk from social conflict,” he said. “Santa Cruz is a more capitalistic and consumer-oriented society.”

Aranibar also said beauty is far more celebrated in Santa Cruz, with contests held annually for Miss Sugarcane, Miss Soya and three dozen other titles.

“There’s a lot of social status for winning a beauty contest in Santa Cruz,” he said. “Nobody cares about that in La Paz.”

The issue of beauty and race, east and west, spilled into controversy after comments by Miss Bolivia, Gabriela Oviedo, a Santa Cruz resident, at the Miss Universe contest in Ecuador earlier this year.

“Unfortunately, people who don’t know Bolivia very much think that we are all just Indian people,” she said, adding that the image typified La Paz, which has “poor people and very short people and Indian people . . . I’m from the other side of the country. We are tall and we are white people and we know English.”

When her comments were published in Bolivia, Oviedo was denounced repeatedly in La Paz as being racist.

But when Oviedo returned to Santa Cruz, she was treated like a homecoming queen, with flowers and applause.

Pablo Manzoni, founder of Las Magnificas, said Oviedo “had spoken without thinking.”

Asked why there were no Indians among Las Magnificas, Manzoni said that the beer, soft drink and other consumer companies that hire his modeling firm “don’t want any. They don’t think it’s something that customers want. I’d love to have one in Las Magnificas, though. They’re more Bolivian than anyone else.”

Maria Rene Antelo said that when she visits other South American countries for fashion shows with Las Magnificas, “we project a Bolivia that many people don’t know. They only know the Andean part. They think all of us dress like those in the Andes.”

Added Claudia Lampe, a former 6-foot-1 basketball star turned model: “They say to me: ‘You’re from Bolivia? That can’t be possible? Where’s your (Indian) shawl and layered dress?’”