These families stand at the center of Bolivia's secessionist movement in the state of Santa Cruz, where a referendum for the state's autonomy was held on 4 May. Voters favored autonomy at 84 percent. It was a political gut shot for President Evo Morales' administration. But the outcome reaches beyond Morales and could have prolonged consequences for both Brazil and Argentina.
Bolivia supplies Brazil and Argentina with the natural gas that moves industry in Brazil and warms homes in Argentina. Disruption of the flow of gas is not an option for either country.
Two years ago, when Morales nationalized his country's natural resources, he began a long battle to redistribute the wealth of his country from the hands of the few - represented by Santa Cruz - to the hands of the many, mostly his poor constituents. Yet in Santa Cruz stands the most concentrated group of interests that has the most to lose from Morales' vision.
The recent referendum represents the culmination of a long road of shouts, protests, some street clashes, and mostly political maneuvering to avoid the power of the state, and Morales' administration, from stripping them from their long-held positions of economic power. Santa Cruz will not go quietly, and leaders there know they have some leverage.
Santa Cruz is the engine of the Bolivian economy, representing 50 percent of the country's GDP and some 90 percent of the country's industrial strength. The state can easily stand alone, and without Santa Cruz, the rest of Bolivia would wither on the vine. Morales knows this but rather than fight the secessionist movement head on, he has simply regarded their referendum and clamor as illegal and the fruit of "imperialist" conniving.
Since the Bolivian Congress has made any secessionist referendum illegal, Morales has the legal upper hand, but he could not ignore Santa Cruz if state leaders decide to unilaterally act on their recent vote. The referendum vote, theoretically, gives state leaders more autonomy, allowing them to control their own state police, form a parliament, enter into binding agreements with sovereign nations, and control all land redistribution.
Three other provinces, Pando and Beni to the north of Santa Cruz, and Tarija on the southern border with Argentina, will hold secession referendums in June. While not as economically important as Santa Cruz, a successful referendum in these countries would form a strong oppositionist block using the voice of the people: the same tactic Morales has used to push forward his own political agenda.
Most importantly, Tarija and Santa Cruz both lie on significant natural gas deposits. Tarija sits on some 85 percent of the country's proven gas reserves. Depending on how this power struggle progresses, the leaders of both Brazil and Argentina could find themselves pulled into Bolivia's domestic problems to secure supplies of natural gas, a matter of national security.
Bolivia's military has remained at a distance from the political dispute, although most presume it will remain loyal to Morales. The Bolivian military is the most interesting component of this situation. If the generals' loyalty remains with Morales, he will have the necessary tools to force the unruly upstarts into line. If not, the secessionists, led by Santa Cruz, would force the hands of Argentina and Brazil.
It is unlikely that any war breaks out over control of Bolivia's natural gas resources. But as one group struggles to preserve its power against a government that has a democratically elected right to redistribute that power, Bolivia's neighbors can't help but pay attention. The decisions of a small group of families could very well change their future.