So about this rich guy I know

I’ll be the first to admit it’s a strange feeling to log onto and read a story involving someone I know.

Time story

It’s even stranger to get to the end, do a little more searching for what is being said about this person elsewhere online, and come out feeling quite conflicted about the whole thing.

Examiner story

Machetera story

For those who are reading this post before going back and reading the links, I should clarify what I mean by “know.” I am currently spending five months doing volunteer work at the Stansberry Children’s Home and Daycare in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, and one of the people on the board of directors of Stansberry is Ron Larsen, a US-born cattle rancher who is fighting with the government to keep the thousands of acres of ranch. I can’t say I know him well, but I have met him a couple of times and engaged in run-of-the-mill chit-chat about who we both are and what we’re doing in Bolivia. He is thought of well around Stansberry, as far as I can tell. Several times Larsen has invited the kids, staff, and others in connection with the children’s home out to the ranch for extended weekends, where based on the pictures they take, the kids hike, sit around in hot tubs, eat lots of food, and all kinds of fun things they don’t stop talking about for weeks.

And now Larsen is accused of all kinds of nasty things I don’t like. The laundry list includes slavery, sedition, robbery, keeping government officials hostage, assault of unarmed government employees, and what seems to be the main thing: owning lots and lots of land that some believe should belong to the indigenous people of western Bolivia.

Whether it’s 141,000 acres or less than 25,000 acres, it’s a lot more than any poor indigenous person alone has, that’s for sure.

So while I’m inclined to feel sympathetic when people here at Stansberry tell me Larsen is hiding out and is afraid for his life, another part of me wonders if he is really as benevolent as I’ve been lead to believe. It’s not really about him as much as it’s about these big political discussions of private property rights, systems that create poverty, and choosing one’s own destiny. It takes a personal twist for me because I’ve seen Larsen express what looked for all the world like kindness and compassion toward the kids at the daycare. It’s also personal because I know the vast majority of the parents of the kids at the daycare came to Santa Cruz looking for work because there were few opportunities in their home communities in central and western Bolivia.

Whether Larsen is really guilty of all those accusations or not, the point that no one seems to dispute is a small amount of people own most of the land in Bolivia.

I’m torn between the capitalist/elitist and the humanitarian in me. I hear my parents and grandparents in one ear saying they have the right to keep the land they bought and prosper if able. I hear people like YARs in the other ear talking about systems of oppression that keep people down and with little chance to improve their situations. I like the image of the downtrodden trumping over The Man, but I hate it when that image is painted in blood.

The other voice I’m hearing is the vegan I wish to be someday, the voice that raises questions about the rightness of cattle ranching and industry centered around the use of non-human animals.

I own no land myself. My most expensive possession is my computer. I really don’t have a desire to own hundreds or thousands of acres. Still, I have probably a hundred times more earning potential than any of the daycare parents because I’m white, from the US, college-educated and well-connected to other people with similar earning potentials. If I needed to just up and leave on the next plane out of here, I could. The only other people here I know who could do that, too… would also be gringos. Maybe a couple of Bolivians. Most of the Bolivians I know either were born in Santa Cruz or spent their last dollars just trying to get to this city to vie for one job with thousands of applicants telling similar stories. Either way, what counts as “being financially well off” to them vs. to me are quite different. I went to a friend’s two-room home for dinner last night. I can’t think of anyone I know in the US who would be that proud of that small a space.

So, this is what is running through my head on election day. It’s pretty quiet around here since vehicle traffic, church services, and other things that would keep people away from the polls to vote on Santa Cruz’s autonomy is prohibited today. Another niggling thought in my mind is whether Stansberry’s connection with Larsen could also put people here at risk. Whatever the case is… I’m not leaving the grounds until I’m sure it’s safe.

Comments (13)

  1. somasoul

    Nice post.

    I think it’s okay to be torn. Maybe some of it about Larson is true. People aren’t necessarily good or evil. We are both. Hitler was supposedly a great family man. Martin Luther King Jr. was an adulterer. Ghandi beat his wife. Stalin……..well, he was just really bad.

  2. TimN

    Ah but Somasoul, you forgot the real classic, Hitler was a vegetarian (even if he was only really a meat reducer).

  3. Skylark (Post author)

    Nice job, Tim. :D I usually hear the “Hitler was a vegetarian” line in the context of non-vegetarians stating why they think vegetarianism is stupid or makes people crazy or whatever. It’s actually kind of refreshing for it to pop up in a different setting.

    When you’ve been a vegetarian for eight years, hearing the same old lines from different people, each thinking they’re being original… it gets tiresome.

    Thank you, somasoul, for pointing out the blatantly obvious that I was somewhat overlooking. It’d be nice if people could be put in simple boxes for ethical/moral classification, but I can’t even do that with myself, let alone other people. Most of the people I would consider to be generally wonderful and delightful human beings are either Christians or vegetarians, but not both. I’m not trying to belabor the vegetarian thing here, though. :)

  4. somasoul

    HAHA! I didn’t know Hitler was a vegetarian! Apparently the guy thought killing animals for food was bad but killing people was okay.

    *Back on track*
    Jesus is both an advocate of the oppressed “blessed are they that are persecuted” and an advocate of the oppressor “If someone compels you to walk with him a mile, walk with him two.”

    Interesting. I wonder what Jesus is saying? What is this man’s worldview that presents, in himself, a seemingly contradictory duality?

  5. Skylark (Post author)

    somasoul, rumor has it (and rumor is most of what we have to go on here) that Hitler may have limited the amount of meat he ate for health reasons. Maybe his doctor told him his bad cholesterol levels were too high. Whatever his reasons were, he didn’t shut down slaughterhouses or large animal farms or other things you would think would be likely if he were an animal rights or animal welfare fan. He certainly had no trouble being controlling in a thousand other ways.

    But yes, back to the topic. Since Jesus’ statement about walking two miles isn’t directed at the oppressor (if making someone walk with you for a mile is oppression, and I don’t really know much about the cultural context of that), I’m not sure how to take it. It might be a “bearing up under suffering” thing. Or, it might be a “go with the oppressor further than he wants to take you because you might find out some dirt on him and be able to wreck his reputation later” thing. ;) Just kiddin’. That’s a high school tactic.

  6. somasoul

    Nah, skylark, the milage thing is something we miss culturally. Roman soldiers had the ability to force any civilian to carry their gear but only for a mile (or kilometer or whatever they used back then). The roman soldiers had lots of gear and it was heavy and it was considered the duty of civilians to help them.

    So when Jesus says “Walk with him two” he is saying to be a servant to the oppressor for twice as long as is demanded of you.

    Jesus crazy-assed proclamations don’t end with “Sell all your things” or “turn the other cheek”.

  7. Skylark (Post author)

    I just had a thought–maybe the second-mile statement was about sparing someone else from walking that mile.

  8. DenverS

    Interesting post… I also know this Larson guy and have done stuff with his son in the past, but have been out of touch for quite a while, and am disconnected from the situation to offer much insight.

    I knew him as a very generous man, who has given tremendous support to the Stansberry Home, and has hired several of the kids over summers to gain practical skills while working on his ranch. From what I remember, these were very positive experiences for the kids. So that’s my personal connection, and it’s hard to know what to make of what transpired. Shooting out tires was a poor decision.

    So Skylark, I echo some of your struggles in trying to sort out what to think of Larsen and the situation that transpired.

    Samasoul, I think you are right, people aren’t necessary just good or just evil. I think the same can be said for many controversial issues, there is often a lot of gray area.

    On a recent trip to China, I read that people there think of Mao (guy who lead China’s communist revolution) as 70% good, 30% bad. His critics reverse that ratio. So the same can probably be said for Larson.

    1. StevenR

      Hi Denver. I knew you when you were 12 and living with your parents at the Stansberry Home. Good times. This thread is way old and probably won’t be seen again. I got here in a round about way. I knew Larson as well. He had this full tiger hide in his living room. Claims he shot it on his land. Must have been an exotic escaped pet. He said some of his workers spotted it so they formed a line and drove it out to where Larson could get a shot at it. His front door to his house was incredible. Hand carved. Must have taken an arctician over a year it was so detailed.

  9. Skylark (Post author)

    In reflecting, I recalled another rich guy known for being generous–Andrew Carnegie. He paid his workers low wages, which from what I´m told, were so low they barely kept the workers and their families surviving in poverty. His Gospel of Wealth book has positive and negative elements, with a key theme being that wealth should only be in the hands of people who will actually do good things with it, rather than waste it. I remember hearing in a college history class that he believed if he paid his workers more, they would squander it in drink or other vices. It was better for him to use the money to build Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Institute, the Carnegie Foundation, numerous libraries, etc., and everyone could benefit.

    This reminds me distinctly of something I read on the Stuff White People Like blog, that white people (or really white educated liberal urban hipsters, but the shorter title is catchier) like knowing what´s best for poor people. And I wonder if we really do.

    Is governing themselves what is ¨really best¨for poor people? This editorial takes a strong tone against Santa Cruz´s autonomy moves even back in 2005, which is the date on the editorial. The first time I read it, I thought, ¨Can Santa Cruz really be that bad?¨ and on a second read, I thought, ¨Maybe not, but there may well be some significant truth to what this writer says.¨

    This paragraph stood out to me:

    And what do they (Cruceños) want? Autonomy. To govern their own lands? Yes. Which lands? Ah, well, that depends, because among their demands, the city of Santa Cruz wants to see more of the benefits of gas exportation, and the department of Santa Cruz (Bolivia is divided into departments as opposed to states or provinces) has more gas than any other Bolivian department. But the gas is not in the city, it’s in the south, in a region known as el Chaco, inhabited mostly by… indigenous people, the Guaraní, who of course do not participate in the angry demonstrations up in Santa Cruz. Would they have even been invited? I doubt it…

  10. TimN

    Skylark, Thanks for all the reflections in this post and in the comments on Santa Cruz and the different ways of viewing the autonomy vote. Please keep us up to date on this. I haven’t read much helpful reporting on it and you seem to have a good view of what’s going on.

  11. Atomicgoat

    An interesting thread, for sure. RE: Ron Larsen, suffice it to say that my familiy has known Ron for over 25 years. This is my take on him: he is a compassionate cowboy who’s not afraid to stand up to strong arm tactics. We hear the words “to help the indigenous poor” in the media and we get a pang of guilt and desire to see justice. That’s exactly how Ron feels when dealing with the orphans at the orphanage. To compare Ron to Hitler who was “a great family guy” (!!!) is totally absurd. Evo Morales, although in rhetoric is a champion of the poor, is bent on centralizing power (understandably). That has backfired horribly in the Bolivia. He should have approached the redistribution of land in a less heavy-handed way. Of course, large landowners are going to get their backs up. And why pick on the American guy?!! Because Evo wants to attempt to place all blame for Bolivia’s unrest on the United States, along with his Godfather, Hugo Chavez. Examine carefully Hugo Chavez’s own policies. They are no less dictatorial and economically severe than the United States….


    Ronald Larsen, who was ignorantly denigrated by Skylark and others in their posts, died today of the Corona Virus in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Ronald, a friend of mine for many years, did try to unsuccessfully protect his ranch from government control and in doing so he probably made a mistake that lost him the property. However, without really knowing Ron and without looking into his life in detail your comments are incorrect and based on ignorance. If you are an Anabaptist Radical it doesn’t mean that you have the right to run down an honorable man who has done so much for Santa Cruz. You mention that you don’t really know him except peripherally. Why don’t you try to get the facts–you were right there in one of the places where his energy and courage saved a children’s home from disaster. When Mrs. Stansberry died in 1988 it was Ron Larsen as a member of the Board who stepped in and reorganized a Home whose land was under threat to be subdivided. He almost singlehandedly reorganized the Home and brought in Dallas and Rhoda Steiner as administrators. Under their leadership the Home thrived. The property was properly fenced, new building were constructed, others repaired and Ron himself was instrumental in providing the funds to do much of the rebuilding.

    You should look at El Jordan, another project that Ron supported. El Jordan, headed by Corina Clemmens and her husband Marco, who work training women from very poor barrios to learn a skill that will help bring in extra income and for young men to be trained in a skill that would eventually lead to a job. Ron invested many thousands of dollars into these projects. These are only a few of the projects that he supported. There were many more in Bolivia and Brazil.

    He took two ranches that were in shambles and not making money and on the verge of bankruptcy and built them into efficient operations. He introduced peanut cultivation into one of them so that the wives of the cowboys would have an additional income and feel fulfilled. Go out and buy Tacker peanut butter that still exists as a Bolivian brand. His ranches had a school for the kids, a church (built of stone would you believe) and medical facilities. After the Evo government that you seem to favor, illegally took over, the whole ranch became a shambles. The Government in fact wanted to control the oil well (one of the largest in Bolivia) and really didn’t care about the people. Please note in Bolivia the Government owns all resources below the surface. It controlled the well but wanted to teach Ron a lesson.

    Now Ronald Larsen did make some mistakes of course, but to denigrate him willy nilly without real knowledge and without really knowing the situation is embarrassing for me as a Mennonite with a lengthy Mennonite heritage. That is not whatAnabaptists whether radial are about. You should be ashamed.

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