The Week Online last week reported on the march of coca growers, civic activists and unionists into the Bolivian capital of La Paz to demand the abrogation of anti-coca laws and other reforms. Despite fierce repression by Bolivian security forces, thousands of marchers poured into La Paz to call for an end to privatization, defense of the coca plant and meaningful negotiations with the government of President Hugo Banzer (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/183.html#coca2).
Meeting with a supportive US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington, DC, on April 23, President Banzer vowed not to negotiate with the cocaleros. But after two weeks of mounting pressure from coca growers and other social sectors, Banzer changed his tune. According to Bolivian press reports, lawmakers representing the Banzer government have reached an agreement with the COMUNAL (Unified National Mobilization Coordinator) to end the immediate standoff while the sticky issues of domestic coca policy, privatization and economic reform are reviewed by a joint commission.
The Banzer government had previously declared Laws 1008 (the coca law) and 21060 (the privatization law) untouchable, but was forced by a rising tide of civil disorder to come to the table. Coca growers organized into the Six Federations of the Tropics and led by Congressman Evo Morales have waged a desperate campaign against the eradication of their cash crop under the US-advised and supported "Plan Dignity" since it began in 1998, and last September played a major role in nationwide strikes and blockades that left 10 dead and the Banzer government shaken.
Pressure on the Banzer regime only increased in the two weeks since the march on La Paz. Embittered by the government's violent response to the March for Life and Dignity, cocaleros renewed their campaign of road blockades, especially in the Chapare, where the eradication campaign has been extensive, and according to the Andean Information Network (AIN), 8,000 soldiers were on hand to stop them. In the Yungas, the last stronghold of illicit coca production, blockades were set to go up this week.
But it was not only the cocaleros hounding the Banzer government. The national peasant union, CSUTCB, and the nation's largest and historically powerfully labor union, the Bolivian Workers' Central (COB), had both declared national actions to begin May 1. The COB demanded that the Banzer government grant wage increases and pay agreed upon pensions to the retired, repeal the coca law, and stop privatization of government enterprises.
Urban teachers went on strike May 2, and health workers nationwide held a lightning 24-hour strike April 27. If those weren't enough for Banzer's beleaguered minions, retirees angered by the government's failure to live up to its promise to increase their pensions demonstrated and began mediagenic hunger strikes.
According to Presencia (La Paz), once the accord was signed, the government began pulling back its troops and cocaleros began lifting roadblocks on the nation's highways. The Ministry of Government then announced it had released 50 Chapare prisoners and that the rest were being processed for release.
The government bought itself time on Wednesday, but at a price. According to Presencia, representatives of the parliament and cabinet ministers will form a series of commissions along with representatives of each sector of the COMUNAL -- the Chapare cocaleros, the Yungas cocaleros, the Water Coordinator of Cochabamba, retirees, small debtors, and indigenous peoples -- to examine the coca laws, the water situation and the economic crisis.
But if the government was forced to retreat by agreeing to put the coca and privatization laws on the table, cocaleros also had to step back from a previously nonnegotiable demand. They conceded that prior government agreement to repeal Law 1008 would not be a precondition for dialogue, Presencia reported.
Under the agreement, the commissions will meet every 15 days to measure the progress of negotiations. One commission will deal with the government's abysmal record of noncompliance with previous accords, including three un-enacted agreements with cocaleros that would have provided for alternative development assistance and other compensation for lost crops. A second commission will tackle economic reforms, while a third will grapple with the coca law, land reform and agricultural development.
The first report from the commissions will be released May 21, according to La Prensa (La Paz).
The agreement between the Bolivian government and civil society has brought the opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the Andean nation's deep-seated conflicts, but given geopolitical and economic realities, it is difficult to imagine the Banzer government abandoning its US-approved coca eradication program or the cocaleros abandoning their primary cash crop.
(DRCNet is able to cover the Bolivian situation thanks to updates distributed by the Andean Information Network; visit them at http://www.scbbs-bo.com/ain/ online. Also providing cutting edge reporting on Bolivia and Latin America as a whole is Narco News, http://www.narconews.com on the web.)