Six months after Bolivian coca growers' leader Evo Morales came within a whisker of winning the Bolivian presidency and embarked on a path of negotiation with the pro-US government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, talks have broken down and the cocaleros this week returned to their old tactics of road blockades and mass protests. But this time, the cocaleros are being joined by thousands of other Bolivians with a broad range of grievances against the government. And the Sanchez de Lozada government, which has vowed to take a harder line against such protests, has responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. As of Wednesday, four people had been killed by government forces, according to reports compiled by the in-country Andean Information Network.
The blockades began on Monday, after Morales, the coca growers, and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party spent fruitless months seeking to implement a legislative program and negotiate relief from the government's US-supported "zero option" coca eradication program, which allowed for no coca production at all in the Chapare region, home of Morales' Six Federations coca grower unions. But while the coca issue remains at the core of Morales' and MAS' agenda, the party has broadened its demands in the National Mobilization it has called with other social sectors.
Those demands place the demands of coca growers within a broader cry for social justice in Bolivia -- and even more directly on a confrontation course with the Sanchez de Lozada government. They include nationalization of oil, the return of privatized mines, land reform (the issue the set off the Bolivian Revolution of 1952), rejection of the Free Trade Areas of the Americas pushed by the Bush administration, as well as a temporary halt to forced eradication in the Chapare and the expulsion of US troops from the national territory.
With December negotiations stalemated, the cocaleros and their allies took to the nation's highways and plazas on Monday. Romulo Gonzalez, 19, was shot dead by government troops the next day at a roadblock near Kayarani. Ironically, he had just finished his compulsory military service. Later Tuesday, security forces clearing a roadblock near Shinahota shot and killed farmer Willy Hinojosa, 22. That same night, security forces clearing another roadblock, this time near Parotani in the Cochabamba Valley, shot and killed cocalero Victor Hinojosa. Also killed near Shinahota was 45-year-old Felix Colque, who died of respiratory distress after a tear gas attack.
According to reports from the Andean Information Network and Narco News, at least 11 others have suffered serious bullet wounds. Coca grower union leaders and members of parliament, who have immunity from arrest, have been beaten and detained, including cocalero leader Luis Cuitipa, an alternate member of the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies and MAS Senator Filemon Escobar, who was badly beaten during a police attack on demonstrating senior citizens in Cochabamba on Monday.
By Wednesday, the nation's largest highway, between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, remained shut down, with thousands of protesters throwing sticks and boulders onto the roads. As the crisis unfolded, President Sanchez de Lozada flew off to Quito for the inauguration of incoming Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez, but not before staking out a hard-line position on the protests. "Under no circumstances will there be any type of discussion and negotiations until the blockades are lifted," he told Los Tiempos (La Paz). After all, he added, "there is stability in the country."
Neither do Morales, the coca growers and the growing opposition -- including retirees, landless peasants, miners, Indians and opponents of the free trade agreement -- seem much inclined to talk for the time being. On Tuesday, Morales told the Associated Press said the government had lost its chance to dialogue and the protests would continue until the government deals with widespread poverty in Bolivia.
The government's hard line, which turned noticeably tougher after Sanchez de Lozada traveled to Washington in October, is rebounding on it, not only with the protestors, but with human rights observers as well. "With these latest events, the government is jeopardizing the possibility of reaching a peaceful solution to the conflict, and they will be committing crimes against humanity," Sacha Llorenti, a Bolivian human rights leader told the AP. But the problem resides not only in La Paz, but in Washington. "We lack imagination to deal with the conflict in the Chapare because we are so conditioned by the US Embassy," Human Rights Ombudsman Ana Maria Romero told Radio Fides Tuesday. "If they would leave us to decide for ourselves, we could solve this problem."
The US embassy has not yet commented publicly on the violence, but has long been the primary proponent and sponsor of Bolivian coca eradication programs. The new ambassador, David Greenlee, arrived in La Paz Wednesday. Welcome to Bolivia, Mr. Ambassador.
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