‘Gringo mayor’ does local politics his way

by Rob Gilhooly

PORONGO, Bolivia — Mike Bennett came to Bolivia 18 years ago looking for gold. And he found it. But as he searched the nation for the precious metal, the 46-year-old geologist from Staffordshire, England, also uncovered other treasures — Spanish, which he speaks fluently, a farm, two hotels and a Bolivian bride, Brenda, to name a few.

Most surprising for him, though, was stumbling upon the position of mayor of Porongo, a village in southeast Bolivia.

Porongo locals, who affectionately call him “El Gringo,” look up to him — not just because he’s 2 meters tall, or that he’s Bolivia’s first overseas-born mayor. Bennett has brought to Bolivia a fresh look to politics.

“I wanted to do it in a different way,” says Bennett as we drive around a couple of sizable craters in the sandy road connecting the village to Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s business capital. “Most Bolivian mayors simply want to line their pockets. Well, sorry, I’m not like that.”

Since being elected in early 2000, Bennett has striven to solve the many problems of his municipality, which has a population of 11,352 mostly poor peasant farmers. He has provided running water to villages previously without; improved the road we’re now sliding along in his privately owned vehicle; and erected school buildings and a hospital — all on a budget of around $500,000.

The secret of his success lies in his refusal to bend to political norms. Instead, Bennett calls himself Porongo’s “general manager,” plying a corporate management style that gets right to the heart of local issues while avoiding time-consuming bureaucracy and blatant dishonesty.

Bennett insists he never dreamed of entering politics. He originally came to Bolivia in 1983 with the British Geological Survey to research land formations. He also became involved in looking for gold mines, and found them for a number of international companies and, eventually, one for himself.

He also acquired a farm in Porongo, which was then virtually cut off from Santa Cruz, 20 km away. When Bolivia experienced an economic upturn in the mid-1990s, Bennett and 60 business acquaintances in the area sensed Porongo might become an investment target, and spent considerable time and money improving facilities in the municipality.

The group decided they should be represented on the local council, and Bennett was their man.

“I was shocked,” Bennett says. “I went home, told the wife and she said, ‘If you do it, I’ll divorce you.’ She knows what politicians are like here. They’re looked down on, because of the corruption. I told her someone has to make a change. She said: ‘Yes, but it doesn’t have to be you!’ “

Eventually, Brenda gave way. Bennett ran for mayor, was elected, and walked straight into trouble. In his first six months in office, the opposition, led by the former mayor, brought several legal actions against him; one that Bennett couldn’t legally be mayor as he hadn’t undertaken military service, another that he wasn’t “a proper Bolivian.”

What’s more, Bennett inherited a $250,000 debt. His solution was to put a freeze on expenditure. “It all went down very badly,” Bennett says. “Locals said, ‘Hey, this gringo’s doing nothing.’ Even my supporters on the local council said the same. They were right, I wasn’t. I couldn’t!”

In his first year, Bennett balanced the books, but he was still met with heavy criticism. Last December, 500 local farmers — encouraged, he says, by the former mayor — attempted to oust him. They turned up on his doorstep with banners sporting slogans such as “Gringo Afuera!” — “Gringo Out!”

“They came along with firecrackers and dynamite,” Bennett recalls. “We held a meeting. . . . It started at 9 a.m. and finished at 10 p.m. I spoke for seven hours and didn’t eat all day.”

He survived and, despite constant harassment from the opposition, remains enthusiastic about his job and future projects.

One of them is to spread the Porongo name. Currently, organizations from around the globe are conducting a variety of feasibility studies for development projects in the district. One, from Spain, is to introduce honey-making there. A Canadian outfit, meanwhile, is looking at building a major road through the municipality.

He has also made use of his contacts in Britain. A team of British businesspeople recently visited to research a tourism project in Porongo, a picturesque, yesteryear village located amid one of Bolivia’s most unspoiled national parks and sporting one of its oldest Jesuit churches.

“The name of Porongo is all over the place, not just Santa Cruz and Bolivia,” Bennett says. “People come to Santa Cruz now because they want to see Porongo. We’re selling the name.”