Newsbrief: Peruvian Coca Growers Prepare to Gather, Government Gets Nervous 1/23/04

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Peruvian coca growers, including leaders Nancy Obregon, Maricela Guillen and Elsa Malpartida, will gather in Lima next month for a "Congreso de Cocaleros" (Coca Growers' Congress) -- and the Peruvian government of President Jaime Alejandro Toledo is warning melodramatically of the worst.

With some 4,000 or more cocaleros predicted to convene in the Peruvian capital on February 18-20 to discuss their plight, the Peruvian government is claiming to see the ghosts of Bolivia, where a popular uprising spearheaded in part by militant cocaleros overthrew the government of US ally Gonzalos Sanchez de Losada last October. Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi warned darkly of a potential "bolivianazo" (social explosion as occurred in Bolivia), conjuring up the specter of protests, road blockages, and strikes engineered by devious leftist politicos such as union leaders or the Red Fatherland communist party. "There are many who want to imitate the [Bolivian] cocalero leader Evo Morales and attempt to take advantage of the cocaleros to try to place the government in danger," he told reporters Wednesday.

Rospigliosi also claimed that "authentic" coca leaders were working with the government and that in 108 contracts signed with cocaleros, they had agreed to eradicate their plants.

"This shows that there is alternative development, which some people -- like the drug traffickers -- pretend has failed, the same as dialog and self-eradication," he said.

But Flavio Sanchez, president of the Coca Growers Association of Padre Abad Province in Ucayali, disagreed. "The government is not solving the problem of the producers of coca leaf," he told CPN Radio Wednesday, "but those of some fly-by-night farmers that do not belong to the association."

And Nancy Obregon, one of the leaders of the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Producers, accused the minister of trying to disarticulate the movement by accusing it of promoting marches against the government. "I don't know where he got that idea," she told CPN Radio Wednesday. "We are not making any kind of marches or counter-marches," she said. For good measure, she reminded the government that the country is not in a state of siege. "We are in a state of democratic law and we can meet with whatever organization that wishes to meet with us," she bristled.

Obregon wasn't alone in accusing Rospigliosi of whipping up fears for no reason. "The government is seeing ghosts where they don't exist," Rep. Fabiola Morales of the National Unity Party told RPP Noticias the same day.

And Congressman Michael Martinez told RPP that Rospigliosi was laying the groundwork to repress the cocaleros. The interior minister's words "are part of preparations to quiet by force the peasants who will meet in Lima in the month of February," said Martinez.

Peruvian coca expert Hugo Cabieses told CPN Radio it was "lamentable" that Rospigliosi couldn't tell the difference between Peru and Bolivia. "He is making up fantasies," said Cabieses, alluding to the warnings of a "bolivianazo."

Rospigliosi's remarks appear to be more a reflection of very jittery government than impending chaos in the streets of Lima. But that is only the benign interpretation. A more sinister one would be that the government is trying to demonize the cocaleros by linking them to the specter of political violence and the drug trade.

Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/292/nancyobregon.shtml to read our interview with Nancy Obregon.

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