On May 6, President Carlos Mesa caught Bolivia off-guard. He announced that as a result of continual protests and growing blockades, he was no longer willing to, "govern based on the crazy things different sectors demand," and planned to submit his resignation to Congress the next day. The unexpected announcement generated uncertainty throughout the nation that was paralyzed by 57different road blockades to obtain diverse and sometimes contradictory demands. Ironically, high levels of protest do not reflect inflexibility of the administration. Instead, the greater openness of the Mesa government, compared to its predecessors, heightened disenfranchised group’s hopes that there long-postponed needs might finally be met. At that time, strongest protests had been going on for six days in the Chapare coca-growing region and in El Alto. The resignation announcement represented an impromptu mini- referendum to generate public support for his administration, as well as a reaction to a genuinely untenable situation.
Sustaining that Bolivia is on a course toward "collective suicide," as a result of continued road blockades and a lack of congressional support for the fuel law, Bolivian president Carlos Mesa presented a proposal to the legislature and the nation to hold presidential elections and a Constitutional Assembly on August 28, 2005.
Nine days after President Mesa offered his resignation to the nation’s congress, the country remained blockaded and divided. In spite of an agreement signed by the traditional parties and Mesa, including the rapid approval of a new fuel bill that contains terms proposed by the administration, congress failed to approve the law. Social sectors demanding 50 percent oil royalties for Bolivia blocked the nation’s highways at over sixty different points. Although Mesa had promised the population that district attorneys would arrest blockaders to allow free transit without violent police or military intervention, the attorney general’s office refused to invoke the directive, stating that carrying out blockades and protests were not grounds for detention. In effect, after threatening to leave office in an attempt to forge consensus in the deeply divided Bolivian congress and society, Mesa felt that all sides in the conflict continued to impede his initiatives.
NACLA Report on the Americas (www.nacla.org)
Nov/Dec2004, Vol. 38, Issue 3
In unguarded moments during the month-long road blockade of September and October 2000, coca growers and Bolivian security forces chatted, played soccer and ate together while they waited for government orders to reinitiate their confrontation. In a country where coca leaves have been legally consumed and used in rituals for centuries–even soldiers chew the leaf during coca eradication missions and clashes with protesters–this strangely amicable standoff demonstrates how, to many Bolivians, U.S. drug control objectives are an external imposition doing more harm than good. A 1998 survey found that even among the military, 73% of personnel believed the armed forces participate in anti-drug efforts as a result of U.S. pressure.1 "The reality is that the military," commented an ex-officer, "is conscious that eradication has created economic and social conflict.2
After almost three weeks of tension in the Chapare coca-growing region, the Bolivian government signed a landmark agreement with coca growers to permit 3,200 hectares of coca to remain in the region for one year. Coca growers agreed to voluntarily eradicate approximately 3000 hectares of coca by the end of the year to meet an 8,000-hectare eradication quota. In addition, coca farmers accepted eradication in the two major national parks in the region, although the boundaries of these parks remain poorly defined. The accord represents a dramatic departure from past stilted efforts at dialogue, limited by U.S. government intervention, that had characterized negotiations and agreements since the 1998 initiation of Plan Dignity, an accelerated militarized eradication program, with the unattainable goal of total elimination of the Chapare coca crop, referred to as "zero coca" in Bolivia
“Please tell Americans that many of us in prison are here only because we are poor. If the United States wants to stop drug trafficking, they should start by helping Bolivia confront its poverty, not by enacting unfair laws like Law 1008.”
–Prisoner in San Sebastian Men’s Prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
History of Law 1008
In Bolivia, the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, most citizens wage a daily struggle to survive. That struggle is even worse for Bolivia’s prison population. Often considered inferior citizens, prisoners are subject to substandard lives in the best economies; in Bolivia’s unforgiving financial crisis, their plight is bleak. Overcrowding caused by a U.S. sponsored and imposed anti-drug law, Law 1008, exacerbates already severe prison conditions. The harsh terms of this law account for approximately 41% of Bolivia’ total prison population. (Los Tiempos, March 10, 2004). Dr. Eloy Avendaño, Director of the Prison System for the department of Cochabamba, which includes the coca-growing Chapare tropics, estimates that 65% of the approximately one thousand prisoners there are incarcerated under Law 1008.
On April 22, 2004, the State Department submitted to Congress its determination and report finding that “the Bolivian military and police respect human rights and cooperate with civilian authorities in the investigation, prosecution and punishment of personnel credibly alleged to have committed violations."2 Moreover, the State Department asserted that both the military and police “investigate all allegations of human rights abuses” (emphasis added).The sweeping nature of these claims invites skepticism.
Bolivia is the third largest producer of coca leaves, following Colombia and Peru. The plant, which has been a part of the Bolivian culture for thousands of years and is sometimes described as hoja milenaria, or leaf of millennia, is viewed by the U.S. as unnecessary and is the focus of eradication in the U.S. War against Drugs. The lives of Bolivian coca growers are mired in poverty: families live in remote areas in rudimentary wooden houses and entire families work the crops. The image presented of the common coca grower as a drug trafficker, or worse, narco-terrorist, is a gross misperception, based in part on a lack of understanding of the traditional and cultural significance of the coca leaf in Bolivia. It is also due to a failure to differentiate between coca and cocaine. The intent of this article is to provide a general overview of the legacy of coca in Bolivia.
Bolivian president Carlos Mesa is currently in the midst of the most acute crisis since he assumed the presidency in October of 2003. In his inaugural speech Mesa promised full investigations and sanctions for those responsible for atrocities during the 2003 conflicts, lack of progress on this front has provoked criticism from national and international human rights monitors. This criticism escalated this past February after a military court quickly acquitted four soldiers alleged to have shot at unarmed civilians during public protests in February 2003 in La Paz, despite evidence against the accused. The protests were in response to tax mandates outlined by former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who resigned under pressure last October after several months of intermittent but increasingly violent political conflicts. The case, initially filed in the civilian justice system, was inappropriately transferred to a military tribunal despite objections by the public prosecutors assigned to the case and the families of the victims. Military trial for human rights cases are closed proceedings that to date have always resulted in a rapid acquittal. Furthermore, they violate the dictates of Bolivia law and international agreements signed by Bolivia.
One of the key issues currently facing the Mesa government concerns the open public criticism of continued impunity granted to the military. Specifically, public attention has been focused on February’s military tribunal acquittal of four soldiers alleged to have shot at unarmed civilians during public protests one year ago in La Paz, the refusal of military personnel to testify in civilian investigations of October violence, and the lack of congressional action with respect to the prosecution of former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada for the deaths in mass uprisings of last October.
When an opposition movement supported by the coca grower’s political party forced the resignation of Bolivia’s President Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, it was fueled in part by long-standing resentment against the U.S. war on drugs. Even though an estimated $300 million has been spent by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) since 1982 on alternative development programs in Bolivia, the world’s third-largest producer of coca, growers complain that they have never been offered viable alternatives to growing coca. They identify three principal problems: an uncoordinated strategy that operates outside existing community organizations and local governments; the inflexible conditioning of assistance on eradication; and a large, expensive bureaucracy.1