Croat leads rebellion in Bolivia's east
September 26, 2008 - International Herald Tribune

By Simon Romero

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia: The documentary on Bolivian state television opens with grainy images of leaders of the Ustashe, the fascist movement that ruled Croatia during World War II. The movie, part of a propaganda campaign against one of President Evo Morales's top critics, then shows black-and-white photos of emaciated victims in concentration camps, followed by the question, "Who is Branko Gora Marinkovic Jovicevic?"

Tapping a pack of Camel Lights on his desk, Branko Marinkovic, 41, the scion of a cooking oil and cattle ranching empire, seems displeased at being associated with Nazis who fled to South America. After showing the documentary to visitors, he keeps glancing at his laptop's screen saver, a photo of the console of his private plane. His uneasy gaze betrays his thoughts: He would rather be somewhere else.

But Marinkovic is in Bolivia, and trying to answer the question posed in the crude propaganda film: Who is Marinkovic?

Violence has erupted in Bolivia's eastern provinces amid renewed tension over Morales's attempts to redistribute petroleum royalties and to overhaul the constitution to speed land reform and create a separate legal system for Bolivia's indigenous majority. Most of Bolivia's natural gas and food is produced in the eastern lowlands, and departmental governments there have chafed at the president's proposals.

For many people in the tropical lowlands, Marinkovic, 41, whose parents emigrated here in the 1950s from the former Yugoslavia, is an example of entrepreneurial resilience and leadership in the face of the radical policies championed by Morales. In his own words, he made the leap from business to politics to resist a "descent into intolerance and hatred" against light-skinned Bolivians like himself.

But for Morales and the social movements that support the president, Marinkovic is the kind of magnate who symbolizes all that is wrong in rebellious eastern Bolivia.

Attacks against him have intensified since his foray into politics after being elected president last year of the powerful Pro-Santa Cruz Committee, a group seeking greater autonomy for the lowlands from the central government in La Paz.

Officials in Morales's government accused him of becoming one of Bolivia's richest men partly through illegal land grabs in areas inhabited by Guarayo Indians, a charge he has contested in court. Seizing on his origins and foreign-sounding name, some here have called him a foreign meddler. (Marinkovic holds both Bolivian and Croatian citizenship.)

State news media also suggest that Marinkovic is seeking to foment a civil war to create a breakaway country in the lowlands, much as Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. They also insinuate that Marinkovic's late father, Silvio, was connected to Ustashe members who fled to South America along with their Nazi patrons.

"The Croat Marinkovic," Bolivia's state news agency said this month, "is promoting the division of Bolivia with fascist opposition to Evo."

In Morales and Marinkovic, divided Bolivia has found strikingly different adversaries. The president, who halved his own salary to less than $2,000 a month upon taking office, is a former coca grower who espouses state-guided development from La Paz and the redistribution of large estates owned by people like Marinkovic to indigenous peasants.

Marinkovic commands a multimillion-dollar fortune and promotes a vision of unfettered enterprise combined with weaker ties to the central government. While Morales thrives in Bolivian politics, which are increasingly characterized by confrontation and intimidation, Marinkovic still seems more at home in an air-conditioned executive suite.

"My father was a Communist who fought with Tito against the Nazis," an exasperated Marinkovic said in an interview here, referring to Josip Broz Tito, the Croatian peasant's son who cobbled together modern Yugoslavia. As a child of privilege growing up in Bolivia, his parents would take him on family visits to Zagreb and points beyond in the Balkans.

"They're calling us neo-Nazis when that's the farthest thing from the truth," he continued, switching briefly into English with a slight twang he picked up while studying engineering and finance at universities in Texas. "There's too much lying going on blatantly."

But where the truth rests in Santa Cruz is also hard to determine.

This city remains a bastion of openly xenophobic groups like the Bolivian Socialist Falange, whose hand-in-air salute draws inspiration from the fascist Falange of the late Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco.

Another group, the Santa Cruz Youth Union, functions as a quasi-independent arm of the committee led by Marinkovic.

"We will protect Branko with our own lives," Juan del Mar Paz, a member of the Youth Union's board, said in an interview at its headquarters in an office here next to that of Marinkovic. "Branko is a visionary leader standing up to the dictatorship of the altiplano."

The fact that Marinkovic draws such admiration from cadres who clash violently with impoverished migrants in Santa Cruz's slums has exposed him to claims that he is indifferent to the racism suffered by highland indigenous groups.

"It is a shame that Don Branko Marinkovic, a child of immigrants, blinds himself to the reality of internal Aymara and Quechua migrants," said Fabián Yaksic, Bolivia's vice minister of decentralization, whose Croatian parents also emigrated decades ago from the former Yugoslavia to Bolivia.

Bolivia's entire Croatian community numbers only a few thousand in a country of 10 million. Croatians settled last century in Santa Cruz, an agriculturally vibrant department that is also home to Brazilian soybean planters, Canadian Mennonite sunflower farmers and a Japanese rice-growing colony.

But with Marinkovic's rising profile, it is Croatia, which has come into focus.

Croatian news organizations have sent correspondents here to write about his language skills (he speaks fluent Croatian), his landholdings in Croatia and his wife, Nicole Dauelsberg, a former "magnifica," as the light-skinned beauty queens of Santa Cruz are known.

They have also investigated incendiary claims against Marinkovic, including one that he sought to raise a paramilitary force with mercenaries from Montenegro, where his mother was born. Marinkovic vehemently rejects the claims.

"A civil war would be economic suicide given my interests," he said, explaining that his cooking oil can be found across Bolivia and that a bank in which he owns a large stake, Banco Economico, has branches throughout the country.

With attention focused on such holdings and his elite place in Bolivian society, Marinkovic has recently been trying to recast himself in the public eye, claiming he is the victim of a disinformation campaign by Morales's government.

Eager to be seen as a Bolivian, he speaks only Spanish in public. He claims to champion policies that would benefit lowland indigenous groups. And he insists Bolivia must remain whole if it is to survive its latest crisis.

Asked about his political future, he demurs, claiming his heart remains in business. "I'm not a politician," he said. "I only want to go back to running my companies."

But as to the possibility of renewed violence on the streets of Santa Cruz and other Bolivian cities, Marinkovic is clear. He has even begun employing the same fear-inducing tactics Morales once used as a union leader to rattle presidents in La Paz, inciting supporters to blockade roads and protest in the streets.

"If there is no legitimate international mediation in our crisis, there is going to be confrontation," he said. "And unfortunately, it is going to be bloody and painful for all Bolivians."

Julia Z. McDowell contributed reporting from La Paz.