For more than two decades beginning in the early 1980s, various Bolivian governments working at the behest of the United States government embarked on a policy of forced eradication of coca crops in Bolivia's Chapare, a lowland region in the state of Cochabamba. It was a time of strife and conflict, human rights violations and peasant mobilizations as tens of thousands of families dependent on the coca crop fought with police and soldiers, blocked highways, and, eventually, coalesced into a powerful political force that helped topple governments. Now, with a Chapare coca growers' union leader, Evo Morales, sitting in the presidential residence in La Paz, times have changed and the days of a US-imposed "zero coca" policy are history.
As a result, human rights violations by US-trained and -financed anti-drug forces were rampant. "During this period, I would receive an average of 10 complaints a day from coca growers," said former Chapare human rights ombudsman ("defensor del pueblo") Godofredo Reinecke. "Murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, all of that, committed by soldiers and police against the growers," he told Drug War Chronicle this week.
Now, things are different. While soldiers remain in the area, a special police force assigned to the area to prevent road blockades and other upheaval has been removed at the behest of the US -- because there was nothing for it to do. The peasant uprisings have ended, the blocking of highways is history, and human rights violations by the security forces have dropped precipitously. There is peace in the Chapare, and that is because of the abandonment of the "zero coca" policy.
But as part of a broader policy of "coca, si; cocaine, no" adopted by Morales since he took office just over a year ago, the Bolivian government has in effect turned its back on the 30,000-acre legal production limit, now formally allowing an additional 20,000 acres in the Chapare to be cultivated with coca. But while such measures have brought peace to the region, it remains mired in poverty and desperation, as Drug War Chronicle saw during a visit there this week.
On a small plot of land near Villa Tunari in the Chapare, peasant farmer Vitalia Merida grows coca, along with oranges and bananas, in an effort to feed and clothe her seven children. Times are tough, she said. "My kids don't want to go to school for economic reasons," she told the Chronicle. "They want to go and make money." Her oranges and bananas bring only a pittance, she said, while her cato of coca allows her to pocket about $75 month, gaining her about $900 a year -- close to the average income in Bolivia, one of South America's poorest countries.
Despite the constant struggle to earn an income, said Merida, a former Six Federations leader (and still a member), life is better than in the days of forced eradication. "We are still poor, but we are free now," she said. "It is peaceful now. Before, we waited for the soldiers to come like bandits. They killed us, they took us prisoners."
As Merida spoke, the silence of the remote selva was broken by the roar of a helicopter. "No, they are not looking for coca fields," said Reinecke in response to a question. "They are bringing food and supplies to the soldiers and anti-drug police in the region." According to Reinecke, the US-financed resupply effort costs $12,000 a day, a veritable fortune in an area where fruit sells for next to nothing and coca for not much more.
The colonel was as cool as his surroundings. "We have nothing to do with the coca anymore," he allowed, before going on to say that he could say nothing without prior approval from his superiors. According to Reinecke, that was right -- the base now serves primarily as a training ground for local recruits doing their mandatory service.
While campesinos like Vitalia Merida are struggling, the Morales government is attempting to ease their plight. Part of that effort revolves around helping them get their crop to market. In a coca warehouse just outside nearby Shinahota, cocaleros are drying and weighing the crop in preparation for transport to legal markets in Bolivian cities.
"This is our local crop," said Six Federations member Felix Cuba at the warehouse. "Under this new program, we are able to sell direct to the cities without middlemen. This means a little more money for us," he told the Chronicle. "And it keeps the coca out of the hands of the narcos."
While there is constant pressure to earn more money to feed their families, growers are abiding by the growing limit, he said. "We are maintaining the one-cato rule," he said. "It is out of respect for the policy. Evo said we can grow one cato, so to defend the policy, it is only one cato we grow. The federation runs this and we do it through social control."
Cosio pointed to the assistance provided by the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez, which is providing financing for coca industrialization plants in both the Chapare and the Yungas. "Venezuela is helping us to process and sell our crop," she said.
Under an agreement finalized earlier this month, Venezuela is not only financing the construction of processing plants, but has pledged to buy up to 4,000 tons of coca products, a major breakthrough for a crop whose export is banned under the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Under that treaty, the coca plant is considered an illegal drug allowable only as a flavoring agent (with the cocaine alkaloid extracted) or for pharmaceutical use, with chewing of coca leaves to be phased out by 1986.
That isn't stopping Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba, which is providing technical assistance, from moving ahead with a People's Trade Treaty signed a few months ago. That treaty allocates about $1 million in investment on coca production research. While the US and international narcotics control bodies have raised objections, Venezuela and Bolivia are standing firm. As Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro noted as he stood with his Bolivian counterpart, David Choquehuanca, earlier this month, the two nations will move ahead will projects to "value and dignify the coca leaf."
"While, yes, we fight against the drug traffic -- and we are doing quite well; seizures of cocaine and precursor chemicals are up -- we also have to decriminalize coca growing, and industrialization is the way," Romero argued. "We have to revalorize the coca, we have to find more markets for coca. There are friendly countries that help us, like Venezuela, and we thank them for that."
Coca production has now been "rationalized" in the Chapare, as the Bolivians like to say, and the repression and state-sponsored violence are a thing of the past, but great strides remain to be taken before the lives of cocaleros there will see real economic improvement. The Morales government, in conjunction with its Latin American allies, is doing what it can to help on that score. But, as the accompanying feature article in this week's Chronicle indicates, it is going to have a battle with the United States and the international drug control bureaucracy on its hands.