Friday, May 09, 2008

American Rancher Resists Land Reform Plans in Bolivia - New York Times

CARAPARICITO, Bolivia — From the time Ronald Larsen drove his pickup truck here from his native Montana in 1969 and bought a sprawling cattle ranch for a song, he lived a quiet life in remote southeastern Bolivia, farming corn, herding cattle and amassing vast land holdings.

But now Mr. Larsen, 63, has suddenly been thrust into the public eye in Bolivia, finding himself in the middle of a battle between President Evo Morales, who plans to break up large rural estates, and the wealthy light-skinned elite in eastern Bolivia, which is chafing at Mr. Morales’s land reform project to the point of discussing secession.

After armed standoffs with land-reform officials at his ranch this year, Mr. Larsen made it clear which side he was on, emerging as a figure celebrated in rebellious Santa Cruz Province and loathed by Mr. Morales’s government, which wants to reduce ties to the United States.

“I just spent 40 years in this country working my land in an honest fashion,” said Mr. Larsen, who resembled Clint Eastwood with his weathered features and lanky frame. “They’re taking it away over my dead body.”

Mr. Larsen’s standoffs with the central government, replete with rifles, cowboys and Guaraní Indians, might sound like something out of the Old West. In fact, the battle playing out in the cattle pastures and gas-rich hills of his ranch, amid claims of forced servitude of Guaraní workers in the remote region, exemplifies Bolivia’s wild east.

Tensions here erupted one day in February when Alejandro Almaraz, the deputy land minister, arrived before dawn at the entrance to Mr. Larsen’s Hacienda Caraparicito to carry out an inspection, a step usually taken before the government seizes ranches and redistributes them among indigenous farmers.

Both sides differ as to what happened, but everyone agrees that some violence ensued. “I didn’t want this guy making any trouble, so I shut him up with a shot at one of his tires,” Mr. Larsen was quoted as saying last month by La Razón, Bolivia’s main daily newspaper.

Mr. Almaraz said he was kidnapped and held for a day on Mr. Larsen’s ranch. He responded to the incident by identifying the American rancher and his son Duston in a criminal complaint for “sedition, robbery and other crimes.”

Faced with a legal tussle over the standoff, Mr. Larsen now claims that he did not shoot at Mr. Almaraz’s vehicle. “The tires were punched out with sharpened screwdrivers,” Mr. Larsen said. “If I’d have been shooting at people that day, there would have been dead and injured.”

At stake is the 37,000-acre Caraparicito ranch, which Mr. Larsen bought in 1969 for $55,000, and other holdings of more than 104,000 acres, the government estimates. Mr. Larsen, who as a protective measure transferred ownership of almost all his land to his three sons, who are Bolivian citizens, declined to say how much land his family owned.

With his reserved demeanor, Mr. Larsen, a descendant of Danish immigrants to the Midwest, made it seem as if it were the most natural thing in the world to have moved to Bolivia in the 1960s, after he got bored working as a department store manager.

“A buddy of mine in the Peace Corps told me Bolivia was a good place to invest,” he said.

His quiet style contrasts with that of his oldest son, Duston, born in Bolivia, reared in Nebraska and educated at Montana State University. While Mr. Larsen prefers to lie low at the family home in Santa Cruz, the provincial capital, Duston, 29, has been in the spotlight since moving here in 2004.

Within months of his arrival, he won the Mr. Bolivia beauty pageant. He compensated for his American-accented Spanish at the finale by shouting, “Viva Bolivia!” before the stunned judges. Shortly afterward, he was cast as himself in a Bolivian comedy about cocaine smuggling entitled “Who Killed the White Llama?”

Now Duston Larsen is focused on guarding the family’s land, ahead of his marriage to Claudia Azaeda, a talk show host and former beauty pageant winner. Depicted in newspaper cartoons as a gun-slinging “Mr. Gringo Bolivia,” he basks in the showdown with Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian who as Bolivia’s first indigenous president has made land reform a top priority in his efforts to reverse centuries of subjugation of the indigenous majority.

“Evo Morales is a symbol of ignorance, having never even finished high school,” Duston Larsen said.