The US-backed reign of Bolivian President Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada crumbled last Friday under the weight of mass protests against his free market economic policies and his refusal to end coca eradication. Goni's departure under pressure also signaled a severe blow to the Bush administration's hard line on coca eradication, not only in Bolivia but throughout the Andean region. But while Washington's ally seeks solace in sunny Miami, his successor, new President Carlos Mesa, now faces the same contradictory pressures -- from Washington on one hand, from the Bolivian masses on the other -- that drove Goni from office.
Last week, DRCNet reported on the increasing violence and mounting death toll as Bolivians by the tens of thousands took to the streets to demand an end to US-imposed free market economic and anti-coca policies. While the immediate spark for the popular rebellion was a plan to sell Bolivian natural gas to the US and Mexico via traditional rival Chile, by all accounts the unrest was rooted in long-standing complaints over coca and the economy.
The day we published, Sanchez de Lozada resigned, and what could be a new era in Bolivia and Bolivian relations with the US began. New President Mesa, who was Goni's vice-president but who distanced himself from the president as the death toll at the hands of security forces mounted, now must begin the delicate task of balancing popular aspirations against the wishes of the United States. And the leaders of the popular uprising, foremost among them Evo Morales, the coca-grower leader turned political powerhouse, have put Mesa on notice that he has limited time to act on their demands.
While Mesa has promised a referendum on the gas issue, he has so far made only the vaguest pronouncements on broader economic issues and on coca. That will go only so far with Morales, leader of the Chapare coca growers and head of the Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS), the second-largest bloc in the Bolivian congress. "Within a month, he has to start giving some clear signs," Morales told the Associated Press Tuesday. "If not, once again, the people will take to the streets." But in the meantime, Morales warned, "if Mesa doesn't want problems with the coca sector, he must stop the eradication of the coca crop until we achieve definitive agreements on the matter."
Morales, who represents thousands of coca-growing families who have lost livelihoods because of US-imposed eradication programs, told the AP he would be happy to cooperate with authorities in fighting the drug trade -- as long as they go after traffickers he said sit in congress. But he also defended the traditional use of coca within Andean culture and urged its use in other, non-drug products be accelerated. "I have offered to create a drug-fighting alliance," Morales said. "But coca is not a drug within the Aymara and Quechua (indigenous) cultures."
The cocaleros of the Yungas and Cochabamba joined Morales in calling for an end to Law 1008, the much-hated anti-drug and coca eradication law, and for an immediate end to eradication while commercial applications that would sustain broader legal planting are studied. "To find more legal markets for the coca leaf is to close the space for the drug trade," Yungas cocalero leader Dionisio Nunez told the newspaper Los Tiempos. "A new president can't return to a policy of repression and militarization" to combat drugs, Núñez reiterated for the benefit of the New York Times. "There has to be a change, to a policy that is truly Bolivian, not one that is imposed by foreigners with the pretext that eradication will put an end to narcotics trafficking."
Similarly, Felipe Quispe, leader of the One Union Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers (CSUTCB), a largely indigenous grouping, has demanded that the new government address a list of indigenous demands ranging from coca to economic policy. Quispe gave Mesa a slightly longer honeymoon -- three months -- before he would once again unleash new social conflicts, according to the Bolivian press agency Bolpress. If Mesa fulfills his promises, "he will be our friend," Quispe said. But if not? "That's to say he's a friend of the gringos, and will be our enemy."
But the lead gringo in Bolivia, US Ambassador David Greenlee, continued not only to state the US hard line this week, but also to betray a certain obliviousness to the political repercussions of those policies. "We think on balance that our policies and our emphasis on alternative development, together with Bolivian participation and their own policies regarding drugs, have been positive things for Bolivia," Greenlee told the Times Monday. "We don't think it is a problem."
But "Latin America's success story in the war on drugs," as US officials had taken to describing Bolivia, has just blown up in their faces. And while US officials point with pride to the massive ongoing eradication program in Colombia, reports from the region suggest that coca cultivation is reemerging in Peru as well as expanding in Bolivia. In all three countries, the US pursues the drug war hard line with little thought of the political consequences. As a result, US policy feeds the Colombian insurgency and now appears to be helping fuel the resurgence of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist guerrillas in Peru, who protect peasants and traders from repression there.
The Bush administration just has too much on its plate to make Andean coca a real priority, said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (http://www.coha.org), a Washington, DC-based think tank. "Since September 11," Birns told DRCNet, "drug policy in the region has gone from being an independent policy to being a dependent policy. US drug policy is now distinctly collateral to the main thrusts of administration policy, which are trade and terrorism," Birns explained. "I think you may see a de facto reduction in US anti-drug activity in the region and more and more calling those involved in the trade 'terrorists.' There is blurring between political opponents of the US and terrorists," he added. "This is an ominous development."
The US has already been trying that tack in Bolivia, with little success. It attempted to get Morales thrown out of Congress and has tried to link him with both home-grown guerrilla groups and Colombian rebels. From Miami this week, exiled former President Sanchez de Lozada was still playing that game, referring to the opposition in an AP interview as "narco-unionists" and "terrorists."
New President Mesa, a political independent, historian and former television journalist, has a grace period now, but the clock is ticking, and like all Bolivian leaders in recent years, he is caught between the wishes of the powerful Americans and the needs of his own countrymen. "I don't think the looming confrontation has changed," said Elaine Starmer, program associate at the Latin America Working Group (http://www.lawg.org). "How the new government will deal with popular demands and whether the US will allow more flexibility remains to be seen."