October 6, 2000
By Jim Shultz
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA The U.S. war on drugs is at the very center of one of the worst political crises that has gripped this Andean nation in decades.
A nationwide teachers strike has crippled the Bolivian public school system idle during the final weeks of the school year. Blockades of the major national highways have brought virtually all overland travel and commerce to full stop.
The protest actions were launched by a loose alliance of teachers, farmers and consumers to force the Bolivian government to negotiate over issues including teacher salaries, coca crop eradication and the construction of three new U.S.-financed military bases.
Before agreeing to recent talks, President Hugo Banzer, who ruled the nation as a dictator during much of the 1970s, deployed more than 20,000 soldiers and police to stop the protests.
At least ten people have been killed and more than 100 injured by gunfire from government troops. An unknown number of protesters have been jailed. Eyewitnesses claimed that army officers, including sharpshooters, were doing much of the shooting.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recently declared Washington's support for Banzer's actions: "We share and fully support President Hugo Banzer's call for communication and reconciliation."
Just hours later, Banzer sent 1,500 troops into the small town of Vinto to remove a highway blockade. Soldiers killed a 25-year-old taxi driver and injured 29 others, including six-year-old girl whose nose was smashed by an army tear gas canister.
The current crisis comes just six months after Banzer declared a national "state of emergency" in a vain attempt to stop a civic uprising over water privatization. Those protests forced the departure of a U.S. Bechtel Corporation subsidiary that had raised water rates as much as 300 percent.
According to sources close to the talks convened by the Catholic Archbishop between government officials and various protest leaders, the toughest issue to deal with is the U.S.-financed Bolivian government plan to eradicate the last remaining 5 percent of the country's illegal coca leaf crop.
That plan calls for three new military bases in the chief coca growing Chapare region. To be built with $6 million in U.S. aid, the bases would permanently deploy 1,500 troops in the area, a move bitterly opposed by local residents and many human rights groups.
"These bases were never debated in the Bolivian Congress or by the Bolivian people," said Edwin Claros, vice president of the Assembly on Human Rights in Cochabamba.
"The role of the military is to protect our borders, not to wage war with our own people," Claros added. "The bases will definitely mean more use of the military in the region and more violations of human rights."
The government announced it would back away from the bases only if the military's presence at an existing base in the area can be expanded.
"We can't leave those areas unprotected to be retaken by the black market of narcotraffick-ing," Banzer proclaimed in a televised speech, arguing for a permanent military presence in the region, U.S. Ambassador V. Manuel Rocha said that the bases were "not an imposition by the U.S. government but a decision by the Bolivian government." But many here question if the United States is as dispassionate about the issue behind closed doors.
An Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted that if Bolivia should back way from the U.S.-financed bases plan, it could create doubts about the Bolivian government's much-touted pledge to make the country "free of illegal coca" by 2002.
"If you are committed to eradicate coca using the military, how are you going to continue it without a military presence?" the official asked.
In September, President Clin-ton cited the Bolivian govern-ment's coca eradication efforts as his main reason for proposing that the United States and other lenders forgive the nation's multimillion dollar foreign debt.
U.S. officials are eager to use Bolivia as a model for a successful eradication effort, especially with Clinton's new $1.3-billion military-led coca eradication plan in Colombia.
Even with the apparent government concession on the bases, it is unclear how long the conflict between the government and coca farmers in the Chapare region will continue. Blockades there have cut off highway passage between the nation's second and third largest cities, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.
Farmers are demanding that they be allowed to continue growing small plots of the plant (less than 1/2 an acre). Coca farmers also note that small plantings are allowed under the nation's coca-eradication law approved under U.S. pressure in 1988.
With nearly 95 percent of the crop already eradicated in the region, they argue, the small crops that remain would be for traditional uses, including the widespread Bolivian practice of chewing coca leaves.
Unprocessed coca leaves are legal, sold and chewed widely and also used for commercial production of coca tea, popular as a treatment for stomach and altitude ailments.
While the coca leaf is the base ingredient for cocaine, it only takes on the drug's effects after being processed with powerful chemicals.
Talking about the eradication program, a top official admitted, "We've also wiped out the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands, maybe one million people.''
Meanwhile, food shortages caused by the blockades have started to take effect in some cities. Many Bolivians are growing weary of the protest, lobbing criticisms, and more, at both sides.
A collection of children's drawings pasted on the wall of one Cochabamba school shows images of soldiers opening fire on people and trucks stopped at blockades. The drawings are accompanied by writings such as: "I want peace; Don't throw rocks; and Don't kill people."
A week ago chicken producers angrily dumped a pile of 1,000 dead and rotting birds in front of the office of Cochabamba's governor and that of one protest group. The birds died because blockades cut off feed supplies. Still, an informal poll by a daily newspaper here of 1,440 readers showed a 51-percent support for the protesters and their demands.
Following their talks with government officials, protest leaders returned home to consult local bases on possible accords. Some coca farmers announced that they were prepared to take up arms to protect their land if an acceptable agreement is not reached.
Meanwhile, highway blockades, public mobilizations and military deployments continue throughout the nation, creating a thick air of tension, with no immediate end in sight.
Jim Shultz is executive director of The Democracy Center (www.democracyctr.org). He lives and writes in Cochabamba, Bolivia.