Bolivia: Coca Growers Battle Government Troops as Banzer Regime Totters 10/2/00

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As US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright jetted around Latin America this summer drumming up support for the US war effort in Colombia, she stopped off in Bolivia to praise former dictator and current president Hugo Banzer's efforts to wipe out coca cultivation in the landlocked Andean nation. After all, Banzer's "Plan Dignity" had, with significant American financial assistance, greatly reduced Bolivian coca cultivation, dropping Bolivia, once the world's largest coca producer, into third place behind neighboring Colombia and Peru.

Under pressure from the US and eager to gain certification as a country cooperating in the US drug war, Banzer put together a brutally effective coca eradication program. Banzer and Albright may be pleased with the results, but that sentiment is not shared by the hundreds of thousands of Bolivian "cocaleros," as the coca-growing peasants are known.

Organized in the Six Federations of the Tropico and led by left-wing member of parliament Evo Morales, the cocaleros have for years opposed government efforts to destroy their crops. Now, already impoverished and infuriated by Banzer's program, the cocaleros are in open revolt against the government's "zero option coca" program and its plans to build three military bases with US assistance in the Chapare, the country's coca heartland.

On 8/24, the Six Federations petitioned the government to open a dialogue on nine points, including long-promised alternative development assistance, a human rights review, and no building of military bases in the region, which the petition said "represent a violation of national sovereignty and are the focus of foreign intervention in the name of the War on Drugs."

The Banzer government did not reply, nor did it respond to entreaties from the Catholic Church and human rights organizations to talk with the cocaleros.

According to the Bolivian government's own figures, the poverty rate among cocaleros in the Chapare, has risen to almost 95%. And local human rights organizations say the coca-eradication campaign, designed to pacify the gringos, has resulted in a brutal, heavy-handed crackdown with thousands of arrests and numerous human rights violations.

"The Chapare has been militarized. Homes are illegally searched; people are being illegally detained and tortured," a representative of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights told a Dallas Morning News reporter in late August.

It has only gotten worse since then. In actions beginning 9/18 and still ongoing, thousands of cocaleros have blocked roughly 200 miles of the country's main east-west highway and clashed repeatedly with troops on the highway and in several towns in the region. At latest report, civilian wounded were estimated at over 120, including 5 deaths in La Paz department and 7 in Cochabamba department, which includes the Chapare. Human rights observers have charged that indiscriminate military use of force in Vinto, near Cochabamba city, caused one death and 29 injuries on 9/30.

On 9/21, according to an Agence France-Presse report (the US media has been almost uniformly silent), hundreds of soldiers and police fought a pitched battle with club-wielding, rock-throwing cocaleros at Villa Tunari, one of the Chapare's larger towns. Soldiers temporarily regained control of the town, but peasants continue to reinstall roadblocks on the highway as fast as the military can clear them.

Human rights observers in Villa Tunari report that troops used live ammunition against the protesters on the 21st, leaving one dead and 12 wounded. An additional 20 persons were arrested, but only seven showed up at local jails, leaving 13 "disappeared."

By early last week, according to press and human rights groups reports, the toll of dead and wounded continued to climb, Villa Tunari remained in the hands of the cocaleros, an estimated 3000 vehicles were stuck on the main highway, and the government estimated economic losses in the Chapare alone at $20 million.

In the wake of violence by the armed forces, the Six Federations have broken off talks with the government and have called for Banzer to resign. In so doing, they join with broad sectors of Bolivian society, from teachers and factory workers to the national peasants' union and opposition political parties, all of which are also engaging in strikes, blockades, and other actions that have disrupted the country for the past two weeks.

Although Banzer is facing the worse crisis of his presidency, the United States stands by him. The Washington Post quoted a "senior State Department official" as saying, "We have full confidence President Banzer and his government will get through this."

The unnamed official didn't think the situation in Bolivia "was all that terrible," and added about the cocaleros, "We cannot forget that what they are doing is illegal."

By 9/29, as the strife entered its third week, the death toll climbed into the double digits, and Banzer remained intransigent on the cocalero's key demands, the US felt impelled to restate its support for the regime. Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesmen spelled out the official line.

"The United States and the international community fully support Bolivian President Banzer's Plan Dignidad to rid the country of illegal coca," said Boucher. "The United States also provides in excess of $40 million annually in counternarcotics assistance for Bolivia, and an additional $110 million is earmarked for this purpose out of the recent supplemental appropriation for Colombia and the region."

As for the cocaleros, said Boucher, "we believe both the demands and violent tactics of the coca growers are destructive to Bolivia's national interests."

Boucher did not comment on deaths at the hands of the military, nor have US officials commented on the licit coca industry and the cocaleros demand for a minimum amount of legal coca cultivation per family, half a hectare, already rejected by the Bolivian government.

Mallku, the leader of the CSUTCB, a federation of Bolivian peasants, transport drivers, market vendors, rural teachers and colonos, was interviewed on Bolivian television on Monday night for an hour. He explained that the main demands are a revamping of the land ownership law, withdrawal of the water and water export laws and respect for coca, a basic religious and social instrument in Bolivian indigenous culture.

In 1986, US military forces entered Bolivia in a short-lived effort to eradicate coca. Currently, Bolivia is the second largest recipient of anti-drug aid under the Clinton administration's Plan Colombia.

Visit for the most up-to-date English language coverage of events in Bolivia, including translations of local and international press. Visit the Andean Information Network at for extensive information on the crisis in the Chapare and the consequences of the US-led war on drugs in Bolivia.

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