Soccerblog opinion: FIFA’s decision imperils Bolivia’s fragile integration

Bolivia’s present political leadership and Brazil’s are ostensibly joined at the hip with their domestic government of the people and anti- corporatist stance with a countervailing foreign policy against the Bush administration but when it comes to soccer and natural gas, Evo Morales of Bolivia and ‘Lula’ Silva of Brazil do not give each other any quarter.
Brazil has suffered mightily playing in the mountainous venues of Bolivia with one of their most ignominous defeats taking place in La Paz in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers when they lost 2-0. In the end both Bolivia and Brazil went to the World Cup but Carlos Alberto Parriera was under the gun and nothing short of bringing back the title would salve that wound. Argentina has fared no better. There are legs in the accusation by the Andean countries that Brazil and Argentina are behind FIFA’s decision to ban matches in high altitude venues. But there are both regional and domestic considerations to the opposition.
The problem with the FIFA ban is that it imposes harsh restrictions of club matches also. That means Bolivian and Ecuadorian clubs situated in the mountainous terrains of Oruro and Potosi will have to come down to the lower regions to play their South American counterparts. There are economic and political consequences to FIFA’s decision. As in many countries, not all parts of Bolivia are uniformly developed or politically well represented. The eastern part of Bolivia with cities like Santa Cruz and Tarija lie in the lowlands also contain the natural gas fields that are Bolivia’s main export and source of income. Proceeds from the natural gas has benefited the eastern regions leading to increased urbanization and higher standards of living as compared to the mountainous western half which is where most of the indigenous Aymara and Quechua Indians live in rural squalor.
This has been the source of civil unrest and sporadic violence. There is a separatist movement going on in the more prosperous cantonments of Santa Cruz and Tarija which feel that they are underwriting Bolivia’s economy. At the heart of this conflict is the polarization down ethnic lines as the politically and economic marginalized of indigenous Bolivians have demanded political reform under centuries of rule by Spanish descendants. The indigenous Indians have become increasingly radicalized since the 1990s and the demand for political and economic integration have seen a number of coalescing movements spanning the Andean countries.
The privatization of the natural gas resources in 2003 lunder the Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada government sparked the Gas Wars leading to strikes and road blocks. The government responded with a heavy hand and 60 people were killed in El Alto, east of La Paz. Evo Morales and his party MAS comprising labour unions and indigenous Bolivians leading the effort to nationalize the that blockaded La Paz for days leading to Lozada’s resignation and installing Carlos Mesa, his successor, whose concession to partially nationalize natural gas, was not acceptable to Morales and his allies. They kept the pressure up and Mesa was forced to resign in 2005. Evo Morales and his leftist MAS party took over in 2005 and by mid 2006 had nationalized the natural gas reserves. Morales, of Aymara descent, became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in almost five centuries of Bolivia’s rule by Spain and its descendants.
The pro-western, pro- corporatist, and majority white eastern provinces have looked on him and the increasing assertiveness of the indigenous cultures with suspicion and resentment, especially with the emphasis on teaching of the indigenous languages and religion in the classrooms. A large swath of eastern Bolivia with its natural gas reserves wants regional autonomy opposing Morales, his party MAS, and governors comprising the western provinces of Potosi, Oruro, and Chuquisaca who seek national integration. FIFA’s decision to ban matches in high altitudes in these mountainous western regions would affect clubs like Club Potosi, Club San Jose, La Paz FC, The Strongest, and Club Bolivar and force them to move to low lying Santa Cruz, Tarija and Cochabamba to play Copa matches adds to an uncertain future for these clubs and increases the western regions sense of alienation and encroachment. Santa Cruz and Cochabamba’s clubs overwhelmingly represent the national team. Most soccer stars including Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, Julio Cesar Baldievieso, and Bolivia’s present coach Erwin Sanchez were born in Santa Cruz giving that city an entitled position in Bolivian soccer history. The 1997 Copa America and one of the major youth world championships, the Mundialito is held in Santa Cruz. To region seething with resentment at having to cede political supremacy to the indigenous Indians but who in the past have treated them at arms length, FIFA’s decision just added soccer to the cultural and social dimension of the divide.
Morales decision to nationalize the natural gas reserves has not gone down well with Petrobras, the Brazilian petrochemical behemoth, that owns 14 % of the stake in Bolivia’s gas reserves. The move has increased tensions between both countries and led to Petrobras having to pay a huge retroactive tax bill. Brazil’s then energy minister Silas Rondeau condemned the decision as unfriendly as it reneged a previous agreement. The unrest and disenchantment in the Santa Cruz region has not escaped the pro-business faction in Brazil who have couched their interests in neo-liberal terms and led Lula away to a more center right position on many economic policies than he would care to publicly admit.
Brazil might have a soccer axe to grind with Bolivia but there are economic considerations too in their lobbying for FIFA’s decision and soccer might just add the exclamation point to a polarized country.

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2 comments on “Soccerblog opinion: FIFA’s decision imperils Bolivia’s fragile integration
  1. All politics and economical considerations aside, if you’ve ever been to La Paz, it doesn’t take much to understand why Brazil, Argentina, any other country, or even their own internal clubs would lobby to move the games to more low lying areas.
    When the plane landed in La Paz, and we were allowed to get up, it took all of 2 seconds to feel like a brick had been put inside my lungs. It took about 3 days to begin to acclimate to the altitude, even with the Coca Tea and the local remedies. I can not imagine what it must feel like to run around for one and a half hours at those altitudes, even for well trained athletes.

  2. Vasco
    I am sure that it is a problem playing in such altitudes.
    But the fact is that Argentina and Brazil overload their domestic schedules with all their European stars and their clubs reluctant to release them, that they do not give time to acclimatize for matches in high altitudes.
    Rather than punish the Andean countries for their altitude, I think the Brazilian and Argentine leagues should give some thought and consideration to rescheduling their matches and allow time for acclimatization.

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