Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia
From Tiny Town to Political Pacesetter



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Dear Readers: this history of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was contributed by Arril Bruun who was born and raised here when it was still just a small forgotten town struggling to grow on its own.

Throughout Bolivia's 500-year colonial history the country's wealth and development have been largely concentrated in the West, mostly in La Paz, Sucre, and Potosí.

Take a look at what Santa Cruz looked like just 30, 40 or 50 years ago in the video below (it contains photos from the 1960's, 70's and even 80's). You'll see the main plaza being built and the city center street getting it's first cobblestones. That wasn't so long ago.

In Arril's article you'll read about how foreigners and locals built and transformed this city into what it is today - the economic engine of the country. Much of Bolivia's history is oral even today, especially in Eastern Bolivia. What Arril gives us is the gift of his memories and that's a very special gift to give. Consider it a privilege.

Santa Cruz de Antaño (Yesteryear)

The city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, now the capital of the department (state) of Santa Cruz, was founded on February 26 in the year 1561, though not at its present location. Spanish Captain Ñuflo de Chavez named it in honor of his native village of Extremadura in Southern Spain. He came from Asuncion, now the capital of Paraguay, by the orders of Domingo Martinez de Irala, the governor of Asuncion, with several other people from Spain, and by the year 1586, the original town was inhabited by several thousands of indigenous people in various locations. All of them were scattered under the system encomienda system. The location was moved several times from the “Chiquitania” region (Eastern portion of the state of Santa Cruz) and finally to the nearby location near the Pirai River where it is located today.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards to this new place, there were confrontations between the Incan Empire, which descended from the Andes, and the nomadic tribes of the tropical lowlands of Eastern Bolivia. The Quechuas and Aymaras from the Incan Empire were unable to conquer the natives of the tropical lowlands. These tribes were masters of the jungle and skillful hunters, like the Guarani, Arawak, Sirionos, and Chiquitanos, to name a few. In modern times, the city of Santa Cruz honored this resistance by erecting a large statue of Cacique Grigota, one of their leaders.

The majority of the Spaniards, those who came during the colonial period, were looking for silver and gold. Rumors and legends of places like El Dorado and El Paititi were their dreams of wealth and power. In contrast, the goal of the Spanish Crown was to evangelize and convert the indigenous groups to Christianity. The Spaniards also used assimilation as an instrument of colonization, by mixing with the natives, and today the Cruceños (residents of the department of Santa Cruz) are the result of this melting pot. Thereafter, whoever arrived here eventually mixed with the locals and today's families are mostly mestizo (mixed race). The people of Santa Cruz never knew the concept of ethnic purity.

Although the history of Bolivia is dominated by political instability, it is also true that from the very beginning, valuable mineral resources, such as the silver from Potosi, were well known in the world. 50% of today’s silver came from the Cerro Rico in Potosí, located at 15,000 feet above sea level in Southern Andean Bolivia. It is estimated that by the early 1700’s the city of Potosi had a population of 200,000 making it the largest European city in the Americas, while the city of New York was still just a village.

In 1825, when Bolivia became independent from Spain, political power over the entire region was concentrated in the Viceroyalty of “Alto Peru” (Upper Peru). Because of the distances and the lack of roads and infrastructure, none of the eastern part of Bolivia was involved in this political process or in deciding upon the nation's plans for development.

During the wars for independence from Spain, Manuel Ignacio Warnes, the hero of Santa Cruz’ independence from Spain, came from the Argentinean Army of Manuel Belgrano, who was part of the group led by General Jose de San Martin who liberated Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, part of Peru and these portions of Bolivia from Spain.

Mining was the most important industry from the beginning of this new independent nation. Meanwhile the vast territories of the Eastern lowlands of Bolivia were completely ignored. Tin and rubber later on became important, but not until the Industrial Revolution of Europe and the USA required these raw materials, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Simon Patiño from Bolivia, the principal owner of the tin mines, became the richest man on Earth.

During WW II tin and rubber became “strategic raw materials”. By this time, under pressure from the USA, Bolivia declared war against Germany. The Germans, when they received the notice from Bolivia, did not even know where Bolivia was on a map. Nevertheless, there was some German presence in the lowlands, as well as in the rest of South America, was very strong. In Santa Cruz they had many businesses, eg. La Casa Seller de Mozart , La Providencia, La Elsner, cattle ranches, a German School and a German Cemetery. They controlled the commerce and the contact with Europe.

During the war, the USA stockpiled all the production of tin and rubber from Bolivia. To prevent this valuable resource from ending up in the hands of the enemy, Washington sent to Bolivia for the first time a contingency of 200 US Marines to stop the flood of rubber to Argentina. The price paid by the USA for these commodities was cheap because Bolivia was an ally. Since Argentina did not enter the war until three months before Germany surrendered, it ended up with more than 2 billion dollars in its coffers. A few families in Santa Cruz and the Beni amassed small fortunes smuggling rubber to Argentina.

Several decades before the War, the colonial powers of France and England had transplanted rubber trees from Brazil to Southeast Asia, but Japan, lacking rubber to make tires, had occupied these European colonies. During the war several thousand Jewish families found asylum in Bolivia. After the war the petrochemical company, Dupont, and the oil businesses of the USA discovered synthetic rubber and plastics made out of petroleum, at a time when the Bolivian economy depended almost exclusively from the sale of tin. During the population explosion of Europe in the 1800s, and because Germany did not have any colonies in the Americas, immigration accelerated toward the southern cone of the Americas. This happened before and after WWI and WW II.

In Bolivia, the Germans established trade through the rivers. It was a long and difficult trip, navigating the river tributaries of the Amazon full of rapids, anacondas, electric eels, crocodiles, poisonous snakes and many other perils. It was a three month trip until they reached the Amazon River, via Manaos in Brazil, and then to the city of Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River, to continue sailing to Europe. The Germans arrived to this vast territory, when little was known of this remote corner of the world. They came searching for the rubber, but the British were already there exploiting the rubber. The Mamore Trading Company from England and later La Casa Suarez, a Bolivian company with a British component, dominated the wealth derived from rubber.

While in the 1700's Potosí Was the Most Populated City in the Americas, in 1810 Santa Cruz Had Only 3500 People

Since its independence in 1825, the only means of communication from Santa Cruz to the western part of Bolivia was a long trip by horses and mules to the city of Cochabamba. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Santa Cruz then had communication with Argentina only by horse to the city of Salta. In the 1980’s Puerto Suarez, a city in the state of Santa Cruz, on the border with Brazil, became a viable means of transportation from the Paraguay River in Asuncion to the Parana River in Buenos Aires, Argentina. But until the 1940’s, the only other means of communication between La Paz and Santa Cruz was by telegraph and short wave radio.

The Bolivian Revolution of 1952 made profound political and structural changes; it was the first radical Revolution in modern times in Latin America. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after his brother Milton made a report about the Bolivian Revolution, decided to support it.

The new Bolivian leaders, Hernan Siles Zuazo and Victor Paz Estenssoro, started by nationalizing the tin mines. Before 1952, only three Bolivian families owned more than 90% of all of Bolivia’s wealth. Simon Patiño was the King of Tin and the richest man in the world.

Universal voting was established, the Armed Forces were dismantled, and arms were given to civilian militias formed by tin mine workers. The next year in 1953 land reform was imposed, and guns were given to the militias made up of peasants.

This ended the feudal system inherited from Spain, and economic diversification followed. At this time, Santa Cruz was still a small town of less than 40,000 inhabitants.

Several years after the defeat of Japan, the USA in 1953 and 1954 brought 20,000 Japanese immigrants, many from Okinawa, to make room for USA military bases in Japan. Uncle Sam financed all of this. Several years after the arrival of the Japanese, 15,000 Mennonites arrived from Canada, the USA and a few from Mexico. Many others groups arrived from other parts of Europe, such as Italy, as well as Korea, China and a few from the rest of the world.

At this time, in 1954, Brazil completed the first railroad linking the city of Corumba in Brazil with the city of Santa Cruz. Two years later the Railroad from Argentina arrived linking Positos-Yacuiba with Santa Cruz. Meanwhile a paved road more than 300 miles long, linking for the first time the city of Cochabamba with the city of Santa Cruz, was completed in 1956 at a cost of 25 million dollars. This road, fully 450 years after the Spanish arrived in what is now Bolivia, was the first modern road through the Andean Mountains to connect Western Bolivia to Eastern Bolivia. Under the conditions of a loan from the USA, an American company called Macco Pan Pacific built this road during the decade of the 1950’s. This was an incredible work of engineering.


Santa Cruz de la Sierra Just 50 Years Later

In 1955 Gulf Oil Company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was given a contract for oil exploration and exploitation in Eastern Bolivia. Many Americans from Texas arrived to Santa Cruz, and many others associated with the oil industry also came. With so many Americans searching and drilling for oil, they established, in the city of Santa Cruz, the Las Palmas Country Club and an American School, as a joint venture between the USA government and Gulf Oil Co. The school provided education for the children of American workers and the Bolivian children whose parents worked for the oil companies. All of these changes, plus the coming of migrants and immigrants, domestic and foreign, helped the people of Santa Cruz to jump start a fast development, and living in Santa Cruz would never be the same. In this short period of time (just the past 60 years!) people went from riding a horse to driving a Toyota.

The Cruceños, for over four centuries, maintained the legacy of Andalucia, Spain, always welcoming, with innocence and simplicity and always celebrating, but most of all, enjoying life with open arms, like a sign of the Christian Legacy. Today Santa Cruz is the economic capital of Bolivia, and with a happy future, even though difficult, much progress seems to be at hand.

Today, Santa Cruz is a thriving and rapidly growing city with over 1.5 million inhabitants. It’s population has exploded in the past 50 years and it has trouble keeping up with city planning and zoning as well as with the construction of infrastructure such as paved roads, electricity lines, underground water networks, sewage, and all the other needs of the tens of thousands of immigrants that arrive each year from other parts of Bolivia.

The one thing about Santa Cruz that hasn’t changed is its central meeting point, the huge Cathedral and central plaza known as the Plaza 24 de Septiembre. My father, Johannes Bruun, a native of Denmark, helped to build the façade of the cathedral. No matter how large this city becomes, cruceños always return to the heart of their city.

The Santa Cruz Cathedral-Basilica

The Catholic Diocese of Santa Cruz was established by a Papal Bull in 1605. The first Bishop appointed by the Church was Rev. Don Antonio Calderon. Because the city of Santa Cruz was originally established further East and eventually moved to its present location, there is no clarity as to where the first location of the town’s cathedral was. However, we do know that the first Bishop, with permanent residence in the Diocese, was Rev. Don Francisco Herboso y Figueroa.

The work to build the Cathedral at its present location began in June, 1845 under Bishop Angel del Prado Cardenas. The gold and silver church artifacts came from churches in the region of Mojos and the Church of La Merced in Santa Cruz. The master plan and design of the Cathedral was prepared by a French Architect Philippe Bertres. Due to the meager resources of the time, the construction and modification of the original blue print of Bertres consumed the time of many different people. It was completed in the early part of the 1900’s.

As I mentioned my father, Johannes Bruun, built the façade. He and a native of Germany named Leo Fleig, finished the towers. Many prominent people from Santa Cruz cooperated from the very beginning by donating funds and materials. The list is too large to mention some, while possibly omitting others. In 1964 the cathedral underwent its most recent renovation. At this time many well- known families and businesses of Santa Cruz again donated time, cash and the expertise of architects. Other professionals gave money and materials to this costly enterprise.

As this region was ignored for over 450 years and the government did little to develop it, this is just one of the examples of why cruceños are proud of the fact that they’ve developed most of their city and their region through private funding and enterprise.

You can read Johannes Bruun's Actual Diary translated into English. It details his entire trip from Europe and how he finally arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on 16 May 1908.

Contributed by: Arril Bruun Rojo

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