Carrying with him only a bag of coca to ¨pijcear¨(chew) for energy during his way, and a sling with which to defend himself, Javier, a 50 year old campesino (peasant) from “The Chapare” a rural region in Bolivia, left his home in the early morning on January 13th. Before the sun rose, he met five other coca leaf growing farmers- and as their road was full of soldiers, they took a shortcut through the brush arriving at the spot chosen for a road blockade. In the bush, they met an army patrol. Immediately they were tortured, beaten and threatened with death.
If Javier is sitting here today at the Campesino’s Union of the Village Shinahuaca, it is because he didn’t suffer the same fate of many of his comrades. 14 continuous days of such road blockades in Bolivia left 18 people dead, over two hundred wounded, and almost a thousand arrested. The Chapare region is the epicentre of the recent Bolivian protests and of its repression. Living there are around 35.000 campesinos, the majority coca leaf producers-a plant considered sacred by local traditions and used as main nutritional supplement for the majority of the population.
In the last three years, in this region over 50 people have been documented as being killed in conflicts with the army. This is not to mention the hundreds of tortures, and several cases of the rape of women and young girls. In Chimore, the village next to Javier´s, in the last 14 days of blocking, campesinos were shot to death, others arrested, and or tortured. One man died after his jaw was shattered by a bullet.
This time, the road blockades and the following military crack-down, which included the use of tanks and dictatorial practices, extended all the way to the regions of PotosÃ, Sucre, Oruro, Chapare, and the Yungas of La Paz.
These blockades have recently have been suspended because of a beginning of a tepid dialogue between the campesinos and the government.
Of the 14 articulated points for which the campesinos are fighting, the basic demands are the suspension of coca leaf eradication, the re-nationalization of oil and other privatized companies, and the refusal to join FTAA ( The Free Trade Area of Americas). On one side the campesino struggle has become an national struggle, taken into the hearts of urban workers and students- but only a small part of the demands have been heard by the Bolivian government of Sanchez de Lozada, who has tried to push away the problem and answer the demands with repression. On January 26, after long negotiations, seven different areas of negotiation had started between the government and a new organization which was born within the fire of the struggle – The Estado Mayor del Pueblo (Major State of the People) . This coalition brought together campesinos’ unions, factory workers and other sectors that had joined the mobilization. This coalition suspended the blockades, and as even as campesinos stood guard at the side of the roads throughout the country, Vice President Carlos Mesa quickly declared that ¨The dialogue is just that, a dialogue …no decision will come from it¨.
The reaction of the campesinos was immediate. With this official declaration, from the first meeting of representatives of all the campesinos in The Chapare region came several proposals. Among them, the option to restart the blockades and radicalize their methods of defence against a future but certain repression. However the decision was made to maintain a “guard” on the roadsides, with the threat to mobilize thousands of campesinos into the city at a moment’s notice.
But the dissatisfaction remains. It can explode at any moment, and if so, a government of arrogance will be in trouble again.
The Disgrace of Richness
Bolivia is a country which speaks with the tongue of indigenous people. Almost seven million people, more then 80% of the population, speak Quechua and Aymara as first languages. The rest, a small million habitants, speak Spanish – a language imposed by a colonization of 500 years ago, a colonization that has yet to end. In fact, today, the most important decisions about the destiny of the country are actually made in English. As in the rest of Latin America and elsewhere, during this century the US organized many “coup d´etats”, dictating economic schemes, and taking part in all the key sectors of life in the country.
One of the attractions of Bolivia has always been its wealth of resources. It once had the third largest mineral reserves in the world, and now produces hydrocarbons on a international level- which is to say nothing of its incredible fresh water reserves, or geographical and natural richness.
This natural richness, has also been one of it’s worst tragedies. For centuries, a few colonizers have sucked the blood of Bolivia- First Spain, and now multinationals from the United States and the Europe.
It seems like a historical paradox, which has repeated itself since the fall of the Inca Empire into the hands of Spanish colonizers. First it was the gold of the city PotosÃ, robbed and passed to multinationals like PatiÃ±o Company, who exploited during the whole of the twentieth century, gold, silver and tin mines. Nowadays the exploitation is of oil and gas by companies such as Repsol- YPF, Pan American, Shell, Enron (RIP) and Pacific LNG as well as others.
The most dramatic aspects of these problems are expressed in the creation of FTAA, a project that is trying to obscure the intentions of multinational energy companies to control the richest recourses of the country. The FTAA would push Bolivia into nothing more than a cheap reserve of natural recourses, and a consumer of imported gas from Chile.
The Coca War
Of all the points in conflict, the politics of ¨Zero Coca¨ imposed by the United States since 1997, may be the most sensitive- but the key to understand Bolivia’s situation.
As the legend goes, the coca leaf was given by the Sun god to the Quechuas and Aymaras who lost it to the Spanish conquers – Scientifically we know that it has existed since ancient times- and continues to be one of the most consumed products by the poor who have few other resources.
The coca leaf represents, to the producers and to the consumers, a national flower of many uses- medical nutritional and ritual. It is consumed as a tea, or directly chewed during the pijceo. The leaf is used as a natural stimulant to support the many long hours of work, provide energy in extreme weather and to cure problems of the stomach, bones and circulatory system. In the poorest sectors, the coca leaf is mixed with ashes and is often the only regular food which guarantees basics calories and proteins for survival.Of the dozens of applications of the coca leaf, the drug cocaine is just one derivative, and is not the one to which the Bolivian campesinos are dedicated.
The lives of the coca leaf farmer is mired in such misery and poverty that their identity as supposed drug dealers can not even be entertained. For the last ten years, the United States has been trying to eradicate production of the coca leaf, somehow putting an equal sign between the plant and the drug. Since 1998 they started the strategy of ¨zero coke¨ intending to completely eradicate the plant replacing its cultivation with that of other crops.
The total eradication of coca, announced as the goal the for the past years, has been systematically interrupted by the resistance of campesinos- which has slowed the US plan through organization and demonstrations.
The main tool for the coca leaf eradication is the Bolivian Army. The Chapare region is fiercely militarized, and it is as common as to see women wearing traditional dresses, as soldiers with rifles and machine guns, armed with the 2 millions dollars (4 for this year) that the US goverments gives every year to the bolivian army. ¨Sometimes they come during the night…” tells one campesina-”.and take the comrades out of bed. ´Get out of there!´ they say, and through beatings and weapons they make us cut the plants ourselves. They use our tools, they take everything from us and sometimes they even burn down our houses. That are some comrades from who they stole everything, his children were beaten and they took his animals and crops.” In the last few years the US has advertised a supposed alternative to the planting of coca, conversion to bananas, palmitos and other products that could theoretically give access to an international market for those who choose to abandoned coca leaf production.
The result has been more then pathetic. As a producer who has changed over to this kind of plantation says,”I have bananas all over the place, it has a new insect that we can not fumigate. Even worse they promised to pay us 3 pesos (US$ 0.33) a kilo, but they ended up paying only 50 centavos a kilo.¨ The reality is that the majority of the “alternative products” do not have a market, and the government subsidiaries, as a campesino explains, “Are lost into the hands of a few politicians, who use it to buy weapons and continue the killing¨. 60% of these credits are used in supposed administrative spending to sustain the modification of plantations.
As the victims of this politics perceive it, the war against the campesinos and their traditional product has several objectives. In first place, the US is the world first cocaine consumer and as the coke can not be produced there, they want to have a monopoly on the plant, increasing its costs and producing it in their own “liberate zones”.
The second goal is to get a piece of land that is valuable, in particular The Chapare, whose fertility has been attracting people from all around the country. The final goal is to destroy the campesino movement, whose demands and capacity to mobilize people has been converted into a coalition which brings together workers and indigenous from the city and the countryside.
The campesino movement.
It has been 18 years since the campesino movement has organized to resist coca eradication, and in the past few years it has started to play a very important role in political life of the country. To them, explains Evo Morales ¨Zero coke is equal to zero life, and we will never let that happen¨. In just the Cochabamba region, the tropical rainforest zone of the Chapare, lives nearly 35.000 campesinos, the majority of them organized through six federations who day to day discuss problems, help each other in the fields while giving themselves an impressive political education through workshops and seminars at a local level.
The history of the miners crisis in the eighties also has had a hand in this. It had created a movement opposite to the classic urbanization of the economy, in this case, pushing in the last years workers from the city into the country side. With this migration, campesinos adopted some of the traditions from one of the most combative working class movements in Latin America, a movement that in some occasions had formed armed militias and in 1952 won the battle over the nationalization of Bolivian mines. This tradition, carried over from those major movements, can be felt today. In the grassroots assemblies, the campesinos often speak about this history to find inspiration and an explanation for what is happening now.
Along with this, a very fundamental contribution to the creation of the movement is the resurgence of the indigenous sentiment, as a form of cultural and political resistance against national oppression and foreign imperialism.
As one of the militant activists of the Quechua movement says, ¨The most successful movements are the ones who reach a synthesis between the waking up of indigenous feeling, and the western ways of doing politics ¨.
So, as example, we have the MIP (Movimiento Indigena Pachacuti), lead by Felipe Quispe, talking about the “Aymara Nation” and reviving the pre-colonial ways of social organization. In the last presidential elections Quispe received 7% of the votes.
By 2000 the campesino movement had reached a national level including an influence in the city through the ¨Water War. This rural and urban mobilization was against the privatization of the water services, irrigation, and drinking water, and resulted in the collapse one of its latest attempt at privatization. The history of the campesino movement, now with a new wave of blockades, and guards, seems to be consolidating into a national opposition, occupying the main stage through its demands and its enormous capacity for mobilization.
The MAS; a new political movement.
Nothing can be understood of the actual situation in Bolivia without paying attention to the way the campesino movement has given life to the political movement called the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism MAS) Under the leadership of Evo Morales, a leaf farmer who has been a militant in the Chapare region for 18 years and who appeared for the first time in front of the cameras a few years ago during a road blockade, the MAS has become the strongest political force in the country. It has swept away from daily activism and the electoral scene, leftist and traditional neo-liberal parties who for decades have dominated the political perspective of the country. One of their own leaders says “The MAS is repelled by the thought of being a traditional political party… it is the tool of the social organizations… and has to be accountable to the social organizations and receive from them criticism and orientation. always. ” In the last elections, this new party produced a political earthquake, gaining 20% of the votes only a few percentage points away from wining the election. The 6 traditional parties pooled their electoral votes, and choose one from within their ranks. This was done under the auspices and support of the US Embassy which stated, “We are not crazy enough to let Evo Morales assume the presidency.”
Finally, thanks to a fraudulent electoral system, Sanchez de Lozada, the candidate from MNR (Moviemento Nacional Revolucionario), became president with only 22% of the votes- governing over a weak parliamentary alliance.
Even though MAS lost the presidency, in the end it managed to send two senators and 35 representatives to the congress, all of them indigenous. Through this, the campesinos forced for the first time in history, the employment of translators in the Parliament for Quechua and Aymara speakers.
One of the grassroots leaders from region of Shinaota, explains the duality between electoral participation and the links with the campesinos movement-
“We wanted to pass from the protest to the proposal, but when they blocked us in the parliament, we returned to the streets and we are blocking them the roads. In one way or another, they will have to listen to us.”
Through this duality we can see the situation today; On one hand the MAS presents itself as a political project capable of building alliances with the business sector and proposes for itself Lula´s Brazilian Workers Party, as a model. On the other hand its platform rests on a militant grassroots movement.
The realities point to the movement adapting even more radical positions in the near future.
“Answer bullet with bullet.” “They will only understand when we block the whole country.” These were two of the ideas discussed in the last general meeting of the Chapare. They respond to the ferocious hunger of the corporate monopolies in Bolivia and the actions of US Embassy. Two forces which are pushing forward confrontation each time more decisive. The last few weeks of actions, road blockades, and demonstrations, are certainly not going to be the last.
Without a doubt, the slogan “Eradicate Coca-Cola”, painted on a wall in Cochabamba, reveals in an ingenious way, the challenges, aspirations, and problems that the poorest of Bolivian society have to confront.
Sebastian Hacher [email protected]