Bolivia, the Drug War and a Leaf

In the narrow cobbled streets of old La Paz, Bolivia, stands the Museo de la Coca (Coca Museum). In it, an ancient clay mask dates from before the birth of Christ. A telltale coca bulge along the lower jaw of the mask shows that the artist's subject-real or imagined-had a cheek full. The message is clear: everyday use of the coca leaf in Bolivia is a tradition as old as the roots of its civilization.

Bolivians do not view coca, in its natural leaf form, as unhealthy or criminogenic. Its effect is only mildly stronger and more entertaining than one might experience from strong coffee. We noted in our travels that the coca leaf is offered as a gift, hoarded by healers, employed by the poor to curb hunger, and even substituted for coins to make change in rural areas. From the perspective of a visiting American, the Bolivian people are responsible and conservative in their use of it. They do not seek to abuse coca by using the refined extract.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. government's demand for the total eradication of Bolivian coca crops met with more than a little resistance there. Most Bolivians do not find it in their interest to eradicate one of their traditional pleasures in order to please a foreign government.

Moreover, the U.S. eradication policy had a tarnished beginning. According to Museo de la Coca, the plan to eradicate coca was originally hatched in a 1971 meeting of then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Nixon administration, and then unelected Bolivian leader Hugo Banzer, previously a trainee at the infamous School of the Americas. Both men have been widely accused of substantial human rights violations.

On the ground in our Bolivia travels, we found only a pretense of enforcement. The government oversees a coca-growing permit system that allows for responsible domestic use, but most growers we interviewed had not obtained permits. Coca is sold in every market and grown near almost every town we visited.

Though there seems to be no shortage of police, they often show little interest in policing. Take the steamy town of Rurrenabaque, on the southwestern edge of the Amazon basin-the streets there are full of aimlessly wandering uniformed police who are openly ridiculed by the local citizenry. Likewise we saw countless military and police checkpoints along Bolivian highways during our journey, yet our heavily loaded Suzuki jeep was never searched.

Meanwhile, giant government billboards inform travelers that the transport of anything that could be used to produce cocaine is prohibited in Bolivia. This prohibition includes common products that many rural Bolivians transport every day due to the absence of gas stations: gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene. Paint thinner and masking tape are also banned from transport. The billboards add to a surreal enforcement atmosphere, where compliance is nearly impossible.

Many Bolivians suggested to us that the root of the drug problem in the United States is demand, not supply. In their view, the coca supply will never diminish much, because the scarcity created by eradication efforts has raised its value, which in turn encourages more planting.

Growing dismay over U.S. military activity in the Middle East, coupled with already existing hatred of the "zero tolerance" U.S. eradication edict, seem to have fostered a lively anti-U.S. backlash in Bolivia. Coca growing and consumption have become, perhaps more than ever, an exercise of national pride. Once convinced that we were not CIA or DEA agents, Bolivians seemed surprisingly eager to show us their local coca fields, which can yield four crops annually, and which they are using as an important buffer against poverty. In the larger cities, graffiti-strewn walls often echoed a similar sentiment: "Viva la coca!"

Support for cocalero advocate and activist Evo Morales rose last year after U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha threatened that his success in presidential elections would mean the loss of U.S. economic aid to Bolivia. Morales, a Quechua campesino, was narrowly defeated by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in a 5-way presidential election. Morales has become the informal leader of a coalition of human rights advocates, socialists, educators, indigenous campesinos and the Committee for the Defense of the National Patrimony (CODEPANAL). But Morales' primary supporters are cocaleros (coca growers), a political entity that draws from all of Bolivia's regions and indigenous groups.

On August 20, the day we were preparing to leave La Paz, the streets fell ominously silent. Then suddenly, fireworks and chanting replaced traffic noise, and thousands of protestors began marching through the city's center, held at bay by teargas-wielding, shielded police. It was impossible to see the beginning or end of the sprawling procession. They were protesting a range of issues, from coca growing rights to a proposed gas pipeline to the U.S. war in Iraq, and as we walked alongside them, their energy and determination were contagious.

The history of political upheaval in Bolivia is legendary. More than 100 revolutions have taken place since the Spanish conquistador Pizarro arrived in 1532. The Presidential residence has been torched so often that one of its many nicknames is "the burned palace." Bolivians do not give up. The Bush administration and its drug war advocates would do well to contemplate that lumpy cheek on the ancient mask in Museo de la Coca. Coca will be as much a part of Bolivia's future as it has been a part of its past.

Gary Payne teaches sociology at the Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Minnesota.


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