DRCNet Interview: Luis Gómez, Andean Bureau Chief for Narco News 1/24/03

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Luis Gómez, 36, was born and educated in Mexico, but has traveled extensively in Latin America. A freelance writer, Gómez was living in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and covering social unrest in that country, when he accepted an offer from Narco News publisher Al Giordano to become Andean Bureau Chief for the insurgent online newspaper (http://www.narconews.com). For the last year, Gómez has been following the coca growers' resistance to the Bolivian government's US-backed and financed "zero option" coca eradication program. DRCNet interviewed Gómez via e-mail in La Paz, Bolivia, this week.

Week Online: You are currently reporting on the upheaval in Bolivia. DRCNet has run various reports, including some by you, about the mobilization of the coca growers. But the mobilization is taking place within a broader social context of popular unrest. There is news this week that the chamber of commerce has called for a state of emergency to put down the unrest. Can you explain to our readers how the coca growers' mobilization fits into the broader picture?

Luis Gómez: The cocaleros are the political vanguard of the social movement here. They've spent almost two decades fighting against military forces and governments and they are certainly not only well organized, but have a wide general knowledge of the main problems of the Bolivian people, the country, and indeed, the planet. The cocaleros founded the Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento a Socialismo, or MAS) and, a few weeks ago, they decided to broaden its goals, to try to reach out to more social sectors, such as farmers, indigenous people all over the country, workers, the middle class, school teachers, students and others. Members of all those groups had voted for cocalero leaders like Evo Morales in the elections last June 30.

The cocalero organizations are a "militant collective," a democracy where influence flows horizontally, not vertically. This is something more than just a union. For the cocaleros of the Chapare, the organizing principles are honesty, solidarity and responsibility. And this has been an inspiration for many other organizations in Bolivia. The generosity of the cocaleros has spread a voice of insurrection to farmers in Potosí, workers in Cochabamba, Indians in Santa Cruz, artists and so many people. We have a divided country -- two Bolivias, the cocaleros say. On one hand, you have an aristocracy of 200 families, white and rich, and on the other, the poor and marginalized. Families of four surviving on less than $50 a month on one hand, and guys used to vacationing in Miami every six months on the other. Racism, infant mortality and disease are the common language of this country, and it is here, in fact, where the current social confrontation has its heart, its origins.

WOL: You have described a deeply conflicted and divided Bolivia. Would you care to speculate on how the current crisis will be resolved? Given that the Sanchez de Lozado government is backed by a belligerent US, is a progressive outcome probable or even possible?

Gómez: With so many variables, it is difficult to speculate. The Bolivian government has taken such a rigid position that no negotiations are possible. It is not correct to say that the US backs the government here. The Bush administration does not back the government, but orders it, pressures it, blackmails it. But that US pressure is usually not visible. If a negotiated solution is to occur, it will probably happen through intermediary organizations such as the Catholic Church or the human rights organizations. They have proposed a big meeting without any preconditions among the parties, but until the fair and long-standing demands of the mobilization are accepted, there will not be any solution, any peace, or any chance to create real democracy for the Bolivian people. Until that happens, we are likely to see such insurgent mobilizations many times in the future.

WOL: You are the Andean Bureau Chief for Narco News. How did you become a Narco News correspondent?

Gómez: I began writing for publication in 1988, after coming out of a militant period at the university in Mexico City. My first piece was about Puerto Rican jazz musician Roy Brown. Since then I have traveled a long way through many countries and a long way through the world of words. I wrote critically about crime fiction and the arts, and sometimes about politics. I covered the elections in Nicaragua and spent some months in Cuba trying to understand the people. And somehow I ended up here in Bolivia, surrounded by mountains in La Paz, doing almost anything: radio work, angry pieces, reviews of novels. It's been a long, strange trip for a guy who studied drama in college.

I met Al Giordano in December 2001 in Cochabamba and helped him to do his job covering events here. One morning, over cups of coffee, he offered me the Andean Bureau Chief position. I thought this was the chance to do something useful here, have an active position in a war that most of our people in América seem to be losing every very day. I said "yes" and the rest is history.

WOL: We are starting to see a resurgence of coca and poppy growing in Peru in the last couple of years. Is it likely that a movement similar to that of the cocaleros in Bolivia will arise in Peru? Why or why not?

Gómez: Perú is emerging from a hard dictatorship and from a long continued guerrilla past. For a cocalero movement to arise there seems unlikely, at least for a few years. We're talking about a more developed country, with more mafias involved in the traffic and more corrupted politicians. Neither is the indigenous component as strong as in Bolivia. Here in Bolivia, there are about three million indigenous people with their untouched traditions and deep relation to the coca leaf. In Perú, this link is not so strong.

WOL: In your view, how does the "war on drugs" fit into broader US foreign policy in Latin America, especially now that the Bush administration is attempting to link the "war on drugs" to the "war on terrorism"?

Gómez: As Ecuadorian sociologist Fernando Buendía told me, it's all about who controls what. The US is trying to spread its dominion over everything that could be a market, a resource. In Latin America, they want our forests, our oil and gas, our water and the best profits in drugs dealing. I do not have to tell you how many times US officials have mixed drugs and oil, oil and water, all to "protect US strategic interests." So, while this link between drugs and terrorism is new, what is not new is Washington's foreign policy: We do what we want, we dominate you, because we need resources. US foreign policy is lies built on lies coming from a sick society about to devour itself in its own contradictions.

WOL: Latin American governments have traditionally viewed "the drug problem" as a problem of North American consumption. Is it your sense that drug consumption is starting to rise in Latin America, and if so, is that fact changing the way Latin American governments confront the illicit drug business?

Gómez: Latin American governments typically come out of a 19th century liberal tradition, the classical sort of liberalism now called conservatism in the US. Their approach to many problems is more conservative than in the US. In the case of drugs, it is notorious that consumption is rising in this part of the world, so governments are now changing their policies on the drug trade, becoming more concerned about use. In most cases, they are moving to the right, but there are, of course, some signs of hope. In Brazil, Lula's government is considering harm reduction policies and in Ecuador there will be a wide discussion of legalization under the new government of Lucio Gutierrez. But this is just beginning, and please remember that in Latin America, when we talk about drug consumption, we are not only talking about natural drugs, but also about chemical solutions, solvents, turpentine, glue, all of which are cheap and easy to find. We thus confront a very complex problem of consumption, and governments are not yet prepared to confront this -- except with more arrests and more marginalization.

WOL: One significant base of support for drug reform in North America is drug consumers, especially marijuana smokers. How does that contrast with the bases for drug reform in Latin American countries, and are these different orientations likely to lead to conflict as North American and Latin American drug reformers attempt to forge a common front?

Gómez: The main difference is that here in Latin America we have producers -- cocaleros, poppy farmers, marijuana growers -- among those who want drug law reform. That's because of our problems with growing and selling coca, pot, or poppies. But the ideas about reform are roughly similar in Bolivia, in Columbia, in other drug producing countries. Those ideas -- about legalizing the trade -- can be compared with those current among US reformers, and we can see there are many similarities. But it is possible that some will accuse Latin American drug producers who want reform of being criminally cynical. "Hey, you grow the drugs, you sell them, and now you just want it to be legal," some might say. But despite possible differences of orientation, I'm pretty sure a continental front can be built. It is just a matter of working together and listening to each other's problems and needs.

WOL: Are you coming to Mérida? Will you participate in the School of Authentic Journalism?

Gómez: Yep. I'm a member of The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism faculty, and I'm very sure I'll finally learn something good on journalism with the amazing 26 students I'll meet. I'll be at "Out from the Shadows" too, talking and helping, translating, working and, of course, reporting. I'll see you there, pals.

-- END --
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Issue #273, 1/24/03 The Road to Mérida: Interviews with Participants in the "Out from the Shadows" Campaign | DRCNet Interview: Gustavo de Greiff, Former Attorney General of Colombia | DRCNet Interview: Luis Gómez, Andean Bureau Chief for Narco News | DRCNet Interview: Ricardo Sala, ViveConDrogas.com (Live With Drugs), Mexico | Mérida Addendum: Missing Paragraphs from Last Week's Giordano Interview | Rosenthal Medical Marijuana Trial Underway -- Medical Marijuana Supporters Stage Demos, Start Billboard Campaign | Bolivia: As Strife Continues, Armed Rebels Emerge -- Or Do They? | Latin American Anti-Prohibition Conference, February 12-15, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico | Cumbre Internacional sobre Legalización, 15-Dec Febrero, Mérida, México | Cúpula Internacional sobre Legalização, 15-Dec de Fevereiro, Mérida, México | Newsbrief: Maryland Governor to Support Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: Southeast Asians to End Drugs | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Canadian Heroin Bust Study Finds Drug War Futile | Newsbrief: Peruvian Coca Growers Begin to Organize | Newsbrief: Mexico Disbands Anti-Drug Agency, Cites Corruption | DC Job Opportunity at DRCNet -- Campus Coordinator | The Reformer's Calendar
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