From Bolivia to Argentina, Diaspora Croats Wield Their Influence
A colorful recent history of political agitation and involvement among diaspora Croats in South America has shaped both domestic and foreign affairs.
According to the Croatian State Office for Croats Abroad, almost half a million descendants of Croats live in South America. The first waves of Croatian emigrants arrived in South America starting in the second half of the 19th century. These were primarily economic migrants who were drawn to the promise of a new and better life in these relatively young nations. After the end of the Second World War, however, Croatian emigration to South America took a decidedly political turn. Around 10,000 Croats fled to Argentina alone, among them numerous high-ranking officials of the recently-deposed Ustaše regime. Croatian emigrants, both economic and political, have long been hailed as prime examples of successful assimilation, having seamlessly integrated themselves into local economic and political life, and finding friends in high places along the way.
Branko Marinković: Soybean King Turned Political Exile
One name that has come up in relation to the recent unrest in Bolivia is that of Branko Marinković. The car that transported opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho to the Presidential Palace in La Paz shortly after Evo Morales’s resignation earlier this month allegedly belonged to Marinković, possibly paving the way for both his literal and figurative return to Bolivia after more than a decade.
A businessman of Croat descent who made his fortune exporting soy and sunflower oil, Marinković boasts strong ties to Bolivia’s separatist far-right. He served as president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee (Comité Cívico Santa Cruz), a civil society group based in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz that represents the interests of the local moneyed elite. Best known for its fervent opposition to Evo Morales and the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo — Movement Toward Socialism) party, the Santa Cruz Civic Committee spearheaded the 2008 autonomy referendum, with Marinković as its most public representative.
Santa Cruz, the money and resource-rich region of eastern Bolivia where Marinković’s family settled in the 1950s, has long found itself at odds with Morales and the MAS’s plans to redistribute the country’s wealth along more equitable lines and implement policies that would benefit Bolivia’s indigenous majority. According to Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center, Santa Cruz is a part of the country that is “much whiter, much less indigenous, more affluent” with a “network of wealthy landowners that really drive the politics of the region.” He adds that “a number of [these wealthy landowners] come from the families of Croatian immigrants that came…[after] World War II.” The 2008 autonomy referendum, therefore, represented a dramatic move on the part of cruceño political and economic elites to separate themselves from the Morales/MAS project.
Marinković’s Croatian roots were often at the forefront of public discourse surrounding the autonomy referendum. On one hand, Marinković has compared his opposition to Morales with the opposition of anti-communist Yugoslavs to Josip Broz Tito and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, drawing parallels between Tito’s absolute rule and what he viewed as Morales’s desire for the same in Bolivia. On the other hand, Morales and his supporters have characterized Marinković’s right-wing politics as originating in irredentist Croat nationalism and a desire to “Balkanize” Bolivia. In the run-up to the referendum, a documentary shown on Bolivian public television claimed that Marinković’s family were connected to the Ustaše; Marinković responded to these allegations by stating that his father fought with the Yugoslav Partisans against the Nazis.
In 2010, two years after the autonomy referendum, Marinković was formally indicted by the Bolivian Attorney General’s office on charges of terrorism, including a plot to assassinate Morales. Once again, his Croatian heritage was at the forefront of discussions surrounding his presumed guilt or innocence. For some, Marinković’s participation as a fighter in the First International Platoon during the Croatian War of Independence lent credence to the state’s argument that he was actively inciting violence in Bolivia via his own personal hit squads. For others, the constant references to Marinković as “el croata” (“the Croat”) were seen as clumsy attempts by the government to “otherize” Marinković and invalidate his Bolivian identity. Soon after his indictment, Marinković fled to the United States before eventually settling in Brazil, where he currently resides.
The Man with the Flag
On August 20, 1990, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Yugoslavia beat the Soviet Union and won their third Basketball World Championship title. An anonymous fan joined the team as they celebrated on the court. But the celebration turned sour when the fan, a man in his early forties, unfurled a flag with the Croatian checkerboard crest. The incident was made famous by the ESPN documentary “Once Brothers,” which describes how the breakup of Yugoslavia effectively ended the friendship between teammates Vlade Divac, a Serb, and Dražen Petrović, a Croat. According to onlookers and video footage from the event, Divac snatched the Croatian flag away from the anonymous man, a move which angered Petrović. “I approached him and I said, this flag does not belong here. And he responded with something ugly about our flag, the Yugoslav flag…I was so angry that I took the flag and threw it on the ground,” Divac says in the documentary.
But who was this man with the flag? In 2017, his identity was finally revealed: Tomás Šakić. A man in his late sixties, Šakić lives in the small, seaside town of Santa Teresita (300 km. south of Buenos Aires), where he works as a history teacher and a journalist. “Yes, I am the man that entered Luna Park Stadium with the Croatian flag,” he said in an interview with Argentine newspaper Página/12, his first ever. “I went onto the court after the game ended. I was already preparing my entrance (with the flag) and I knew that the television channels hadn’t ended their broadcast yet. I showed the flag with the Croatian crest, instead of the communist star.” He added, “Divac grabbed my flag and I ran after him. I had trouble moving because I had a bulky camera bag with me. At one point, we stood face-to-face, ten centimeters away from each other. I could’ve punched him, and he me.” It is important to note that the modern Croatian flag did not exist in 1990, so Tomás’s Croatian flag was most likely one from the NDH (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska — Independent State of Croatia), one that, according to him, was a family heirloom.
But Tomás Šakić is no ordinary Argentine of Croatian descent. Though he neither confirms nor denies it (“I’m not going to talk about that…it’s not necessary”), there is evidence to show that he is the son of Dinko Šakić. Tómas has stated that he was born in Rosario, the city where Dinko and his family settled shortly after their arrival to Argentina in 1947. A son of Dinko’s called Tomás has also defended his father to the Argentine press, stating on one occasion that “the Serbs had something to do with this (referring to Dinko Šakić’s extradition to Croatia) because my father is…one of the many people that has fought for Croatia’s independence.”
And Dinko Šakić was no ordinary Ustaše hiding out in South America, either. In a 1992 interview with the Croatian press, the older Šakić stated that he had “influential friends in Argentina, especially in the Army” and that his personal friendship with Eduardo Menem, then the President of the Argentine Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, helped push the country to formally recognize the newly-independent Croatia. Šakić’s closeness to power perhaps also influenced the decision of then-President Carlos Menem (brother of the aforementioned Eduardo) to bypass the UN arms embargo and illegally sell weapons to Croatia during its war against the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army. Finally, Šakić could boast of a close relationship with Franjo Tudjman, Croatia’s first post-independence president, and allegedly helped organize meetings between him and Menem.
“President Tudjman told me, ‘I know that you are blamed for everything.’ Afterwards, [Tudjman] met with President Menem, and he thanked him for how Argentina had received received Croatian patriots at the end of the war,” Šakić said.
 Rajković, Ana (2015): Opposing the Policy of the Twenty-First Century Socialism in Bolivia. The Political Activities of Branko Marinković. In: Südosteuropäische Hefte 4 (2), S. 37–47.