Peruvian coca growers are less than a month away from unleashing a national strike if the government of President Alejandro Toledo does not begin to deal with their demands. But the Peruvian government, backed by the US embassy, is more interested in demonizing the coca growers than listening to them. Instead of entering into negotiations with the country's cocaleros, the government is conjuring up the twin specters of armed rebellion and social explosion.
The strike call issued from the II Cocalero Conference held in Lima on February 18-20 and organized by the National Confederation of Coca Growers of Peru (CONPACCP), led by Nancy Obregon and Elsa Malpartida in the absence of Nelson Palomino, who has been jailed for more than a year in Ayacucho. Indeed, freedom for Palomino is one of their central demands of the government, along with:
At Cusco, Morales and his followers rallied around the following platform of struggle: "No to the eradication and substitution of the coca bush and coca leaf in whatever form; we will defend it even with our lives." And, oh yes, Morales and followers also demanded that DEVIDA and ENACO be shut down.
"The cocaleros have called this strike because the government has been deaf and blind to the viable and intelligent proposals made by the growers since 2001," said Hugo Cabieses, an economist and coca expert at the University of the Pacific who advises the coca growers. "The growers have signed accords with DEVIDA on more than 14 occasions, but they have not been respected by the government."
But it would be better if a strike could be avoided, said Cabieses. "The government must enter into dialogue," he said. "The other path is the path of force, with the results that we all know: people dead, wounded, arrested, and the aggravation of the social situation of the country. If it comes to a strike, like whatever peasant strike anywhere in the world, there will be picket lines, the blocking of highways, the shutting down of buses, whatever it takes for them to make themselves heard," he said. "I think that we all believe in peace. We must have intelligence and dialogue in order to avoid arriving at this extreme," he warned.
There isn't much of that coming from the Peruvian government these days. While President Toledo makes the occasional conciliatory noise, he, his top advisors, and a shrill mass media are busy conjuring up bogeymen. The violent Maoist revolutionary movement Sendero Luminoso, or at least its remnants, are behind it, news stories claim. President Toledo and his advisors took the opportunity of the XII International Drug Control Conference, held in Lima last week with DEA head Karen Tandy in attendance, to issue more dark warnings. While Toledo took pains to emphasize that "the cocaleros are not our enemies," he added that, "There is a perverse alliance of narcoterrorism" that is financing the cocaleros with "dark resources."
[Editor's Note: That's odd. Those cocaleros, their pockets supposedly bulging with narcodollars, have been beseeching DRCNet to help them find funds to support their struggle.]
The Toledo government is weak and unpopular, with presidential approval ratings running consistently in the single digits, but in the Peruvian national context, the coca growers are in a similarly weak position. "The movement is young and immature," said Ricardo Soberon, a Lima attorney and consultant on international security and drug issues. "It does not yet have a national vision, which it needs to build. There is not one political movement, but different movements depending on geographic area. Each sector still sees its own agenda, and that is the difference between Peru and Bolivia, where Evo Morales and the Movement to Socialism have created a strong political arm."
Not only are the cocaleros still in the process of unification, they lack significant political support. "The coca growers don't have the support of any 'official' political sectors, but each time they gain more support from the sectors of the trade unions, who understand that their struggle is just. No important political party with seats in parliamentary supports them," said Cabieses, adding that the cocaleros did have support from a pair of marginal political groups, including one linked to the controversial attorney Ricardo Noriega, who while he is now representing the imprisoned Palomino, was also an associate of the much-reviled former dark power behind the throne of deposed President Fujimori, Vladimiro Montesinos.
Still, the cocaleros are mobilized and they are reaching out. An event Thursday in Lima was set to begin in front of the national palace and end with a march to the US ambassador's residence. [Editor's Note: This story was written Thursday afternoon before any reports from the event were received.] "This demonstration was proposed by commandante Antaur Humala, who is in solidarity with the struggle of thousands of coca growers who still have not heard an effective response from the government to their demands," said Elsa Malpartida, leader of the cocaleros of the Valley of Tingo Maria and secretary of organization for CONPACCP. "Mr. Humala has invited us to a demonstration in front of the palace of justice. All of the people of Lima are invited and those who want to chew this leaf for free can do it so they can see it is not something maleficent," she told the newspaper La Razon.
And she had a warning to the government: "First they called us drug traffickers, now terrorists. What new lie will they invent to demonize a popular struggle and its demands?" she asked. The government and the US embassy are smearing the cocaleros, said Malpartida, because "they know that April 20 we are going on general strike. But what the regime is causing with these lies is more anger in the countryside, and surely the farmer will now make his protest much more angrily. The authorities are playing with fire."