There has been rioting in Bolivia for nearly four weeks now. News reports say that the riots have been over the construction of a pipeline to ship natural gas to the United States. That’s true, but there’s a deeper anger at work: anger toward the United States and its war against a traditional Bolivian crop, coca.
You see, because of the American drug problem, we can no longer grow coca, which was part of our life and our culture long before the United States was a country. This is why many of the people protesting in La Paz and other cities are peasants whose families have cultivated coca for generations. My tribe, the Quechua, comes from the lowland jungles of the Chapare in central Bolivia. We are used to chewing coca leaves every day, much as Americans drink coffee. We sustained ourselves by growing coca for chewing and for products like shampoo, medicinal teas and toothpaste. We did not turn coca into cocaine; the chemicals needed for that are made in countries like the United States. Bolivia now allows us to grow a very small amount of coca, but it is not enough.
I am a cocalera. I owe my life to coca. My father died when I was 2 and my mother raised six children by growing coca. I was a farmer myself, growing coca for traditional purposes. But the United States says it is better for us to just forget about coca. In the early 1990’s, Bolivian officials distributed American money — $300 to $2,500 per farm — and told us to try yucca and pineapples. But 60 pineapples earn us only about eight bolivianos (about $1). And unlike coca, yucca and pineapples are difficult to carry to the cities to sell, and they spoil. So many farmers returned to growing coca.
Then in 1998, the Bolivian government announced it would eradicate coca farms through a military program financed by the Americans. Soldiers came to the Chapare and destroyed our coca crops with machetes. School teachers were beaten, and some houses were burned down. When I saw that, I couldn’t be quiet. I helped to organize people village by village, and I became leader of a national association of peasant women. Eventually we were joined in our protests by other social movements and unions. We have continued to grow. Evo Morales, the head of the national coca growers’ union, even came in second in the 2002 presidential election. He got 21 percent of the vote, while the current president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, got 22 percent.
I think Mr. Morales would win today. Bolivians have grown tired of Mr. Sánchez de Lozada’s free-market, pro-United States policies, which have not lowered our high rate of unemployment. The president’s willingness to build a pipeline through Chile to export our natural gas to the United States has made many more people join the anti-government protests the cocaleros started. To me, real success in the war on drugs would be to capture and prosecute the big drug traffickers, and for the United States to stop its own citizens from using drugs. The war on the cocaleros has brought Bolivia nothing but poverty and death.
Now tanks surround the presidential palace in La Paz. Fourteen people died in riots there on Monday alone. Unless the United States and its allies like Mr. Sánchez de Lozada stop their war against us, Bolivia will have neither peace nor a future.
Leonida Zurita-Vargas is secretary general of Bartolina Sisa, an association of peasant women. This article was written with Maria Cristina Caballero, a Colombian journalist and fellow at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership.