December 23, 2005

‘Coca is the Tree of the Poor’: Indigenous people leap forward in Bolivia

By Jim Shultz and Gretchen Gordon
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia—David Jovis stands in a circle of supporters cheering on others waving handkerchiefs and dancing the cueca, a traditional Bolivian dance. “This is a triumph not only of a candidate and a party, but of a people,” Jovis shouts over the noise of the celebrating crowd.

By any measure, Bolivians made history Sunday with their overwhelming vote to make Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and leader of the nation’s coca leaf growers, president of their nation. Never before has the most indigenous country in the Americas been governed by one of its indigenous people. As in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela before it, Bolivia also elected a president committed to challenging its powerful neighbor to the north.

Morales, 46, was born in the Aymara tin mining city of Oruro. Two of his siblings never made it through childhood. With the collapse of Bolivia’s tin industry, his family joined a wave of migration to Bolivia’s Chapare jungle region in the 1970s. There, displaced mining families were helping make the coca leaf the country’s chief replacement export.

Morales gained political prominence as the leader of six coca-growing federations and became a vocal opponent of the U.S. war on drugs here. He later founded the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) political party, running three times for president. In 2002 he finished just a percentage point behind first place. On Sunday he beat his nearest opponent, a former President and fierce U.S. ally, by nearly 20 percent.

“In all of my life, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Christian Vargas, a lawyer celebrating at the victory party outside MAS offices in Cochabamba. “That a candidate would win over 50 percent, and that candidate be campesino, someone who never went to school ... this is historic.”

First and foremost, Morales’ victory is a declaration by the Bolivian people, across class lines, that they want a reversal of 20 years of market-crazed economic policies pressed on the country from abroad by lenders such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

For six years Bolivians have waged one mass protest after another, opposing the privatization of resources, including water and the nation’s vast oil and gas reserves. Morales made reversal of those foreign privatizations, especially of gas and oil, a centerpiece of his campaign. He told supporters election night, “We will change the economic models that have blocked development for the people.” At Morales’ final pre-election campaign rally Mar-cello Guzmán observed, “Now we’re no longer going to be tenants in our own home. Now we’re going to be owners of our own house.”

Among Morales’ plans for a new Bolivia, the policy issue that will likely be the first to clash with U.S. interests is coca. Morales has been vocal in his opposition to the U.S. war on drugs, which in recent years has focused on militarized eradication of coca cultivation as opposed to a previous focus on interdiction of processed cocaine.

While MAS’ platform promises a zero-tolerance policy with regard to drug trafficking, it also makes a key distinction between cocaine and the coca leaf itself. Coca has significant economic and cultural importance in Bolivia as a source of medicine and nutrition, as a central component of religious ceremonies and increasingly as an important cash crop.

Louisa Argote, who lives in a small community in the tropical region of the Chapare, grows coca within the 1600 square-meter limit currently permitted by the government. “The U.S. says ‘Coca is cocaine, coca is cocaine,’ but it isn’t,” says Argote. “Coca is the tree of the poor.”

Part of Morales’ economic development plan is the decriminalization of coca and industrialization of the coca plant through the manufacture of various products for export abroad. U.S. officials, however, have repeatedly warned that if Morales changes Bolivia’s drug policies, there will be problems between the two nations. “...I hope that there isn’t a change, because if there are negative changes, the country that is going to suffer is Bolivia,” U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee recently told reporters.

For coca growers like Louisa Argote, however, the policy choice is clear. “Without coca, how are we going to eat, how are we going to live?” she asks.

Beyond the issue of coca, however, Morales will enter the presidency facing huge challenges. A large portion of his nation’s budget comes from international donors, including the US, the World Bank and the IMF, with whom Morales has sharp disagreements. Domestically, he will face enormous expectations from the nation’s social movements, many of which will be difficult if not impossible to meet, especially in short order. Governing Bolivia will likely prove far more difficult that winning its votes.

Nevertheless, Morales’ landslide victory Sunday remains a historic milestone, not just in Bolivia but in all of Latin America. “In all of my life, I’ve never seen anything like this,” exclaims an emotional Vargas as he takes in the scene of Bolivians dancing and waving flags, celebrating the start of something entirely new.

Jim Shultz is the Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Gretchen Gordon is a researcher with the Democracy Center.

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