Columns of tens of thousands of marchers led by coca growers' leader Congressman Evo Morales poured into the Bolivian capital of La Paz over the weekend, overcoming police tear gas, club, and rubber bullet attacks as they fought their way toward historic San Francisco plaza. The marchers, who had departed as long as two weeks ago from coca-producing regions of the country, were joined by thousands of local residents.
The Bolivian government of Hugo Banzer, the democratically-elected former dictator, had vowed that the marchers would not enter La Paz. Prodded by the US government, Banzer has been an enthusiastic advocate of coca eradication. Last week, Guillermo Fortun, Minister of Government, told reporters, "It's good that they (the marchers) are getting exercise, but no march will reach La Paz. We will intervene as many times as it is necessary."
"With tear gas, without tear gas, we've made it to La Paz," the marchers chanted in belated reply. Although headed by Morales, who is also head of the Six Federations of Coca Growers, participants in the March for Life and Sovereignty represent not only cocaleros, but also unionists and members of the Cochabamba Water Coordination Network, a powerful grassroots group organized in the face of privatization of the water utilities. The marchers are calling for an end to the forced eradication of coca crops in the Chapare and for no eradication to take place in Yungas region, as well approval of a new water law and other reforms.
The march took place amidst rising political tensions generated by Bolivia's economic crisis, partially caused by widespread coca eradication and partly due to the massive lay-offs spawned by privatization -- both policies adopted under intense US government pressure. Those tensions heightened two weeks ago when former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada called for Banzer to resign. The Banzer government is increasingly besieged and isolated, with protests on an almost daily basis not only from cocaleros, but teachers, workers, debtors and retirees, among others.
The march also took place against a backdrop of imminent guerrilla war in the Chapare, formerly the nation's largest coca cultivation region, but now decimated by Banzer's eradication program. The Andean Information Network (AIN) reported in recent weeks that cocaleros in the Chapare have "activated" Coca Grower Self-Defense Committees. On April 18, persons unknown attacked the Isinuta Military Camp, and Bolivian government officials also reported an armed attack on a military eradication camp in Valle Hermoso, although AIN could not confirm that report. In a separate incident the same day, unknown attackers shot and wounded two soldiers in the village of Sillarcito.
As of Tuesday, AIN reported, Bolivian police and army troops were swarming throughout the Chapare. The self-defense committees are stationed at coca markets and other strategic sites, and cocalero leaders are warning of a renewal of the road blockades that brought the country to a halt last fall. Blockades could begin as soon as this week after consultations with the different groups involved in the march.
Bolivian police and military units harassed the marchers all along their various routes to the capital. On April 12, hundreds of heavily armed members of the security forces attacked a column of marchers near Pongo on the Cochabamba-La Paz highway with tear gas and beatings, and arrested more than one hundred. Among those arrested were Water Coordinator leader Oscar Olivera, who was a recipient last fall of the Institute for Policy Studies' prestigious Letelier-Moffitt human rights award (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/155.html#letelier-moffitt). The arrested marchers were held overnight before being packed into buses and taken back to the highway, where they were dumped out, but not before enduring further beatings and insults on the bus, Olivera told AIN.
The day before, marchers attacked and beat four undercover police officers who attempted to infiltrate the march by passing themselves off as members of the Permanent Human Rights Assembly, a non-governmental monitoring group. The marchers were apparently not amused by the irony.
On April 14, Bolivian security forces again attacked. Some 800 officers tear-gassed marchers at Japockasa, arresting 50 more and forcing them onto buses. Security forces surrounded another group of marchers, including Evo Morales, but released them two hours later. Under Bolivian law, Morales enjoys congressional immunity from arrest.
Government attempts to block the protest by force only intensified as the marchers neared La Paz. On April 21, security forces struck three different columns. At Achica Arriba, 51 kilometers outside the capital, special police units blocked and beat marchers. The following morning, Special Security Police again attacked the column led by Morales, gassing and beating marchers and arresting 90 people, including a journalist and a human rights monitor. They were bussed back toward Cochabamba, from which they returned to the march.
Earlier that same morning, six truck-loads of Bolivian National Police 55 kilometers outside La Paz violently attacked the column of marchers coming from the Yungas, arresting approximately one hundred. Those were forced into cargo trucks and sent back to the Yungas. As always, reported AIN, they returned to the march.
As the marchers poured into El Alto, a town of 600,000 on the heights above La Paz, cheering crowds applauded them and thousands joined the marchers before the final descent into the capital. "Hunger forces us to unite," Morales told the multitudes. "This government is incapable of doing anything other than using the armed forces against us. It refuses to listen to our demands."
According to late reports from AIN, skirmishes in the capital Monday killed two people, a 52-year-old taxi driver hit by a tear gas canister and an 89-year-old nursing home resident who died after troops shot tear gas into her residence. Nursing home residents are threatening to set up blockades, AIN reports. The clashes were centered around San Andres University, where at least a thousand students and Yungas cocaleros were holding a meeting. Police attempted to break it up with volleys of tear gas.
By mid-week, AIN reported, marchers were heading back to their hometowns to prepare a nationwide campaign of road blockages. Both the Cochabamba Water Coordinator and the Six Federations of Coca Growers have announced that blockades will begin immediately. Cocalero leader Evo Morales has stated that if the government continues to refuse to negotiate, the blockades will then take as their goal forcing Banzer's resignation.
The national workers' union, (COB), has now joined the call for Banzer to resign. COB based its decision on the government's repressive response to the March for Life and Sovereignty, AIN reported.
The Bolivian government continues its hard line approach, however. President Banzer, on a visit to Washington, DC, told the press that he had not been elected by the cocaleros and he will not negotiate with them. Interior Minister Fortun added that the security forces would not permit blockades.
As tear gas swirled through the streets of La Paz, US Secretary of State Colin Powell stood beside Banzer in Washington and offered US congratulations and support for Banzer's program.