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
Click here to read the full text. http://ain-bolivia.org/2003popularprotest.pdf
Former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada is the fourth elected president in
Latin America to be forced from office as a result of popular outrage in just four years. His fall
from power in October should serve as a wake-up call to Washington, which has largely ignored
the crisis brewing in its own backyard. Across Latin America, polls show increasing frustration
with continued poverty and unemployment as economic growth, more often than not, has failed
to trickle down to the poor majorities, while privatizations have led to lay-offs and higher
prices. The socio-economic situation in poor countries like Bolivia is further exacerbated by
rigid U.S. drug control policies. U.S. inflexibility on meeting coca eradication targets has left
many rural Bolivian families without income, has generated social conflict and violence, and has
contributed to Sánchez de Lozada’s increasing lack of legitimacy. Ultimately, Sánchez de
Lozada was viewed as “out of touch with a poor and angry country.” His successor, Carlos D.
Mesa, inherits a delicate and potentially explosive situation. The U.S. government should not
repeat the mistakes it made during Sánchez de Lozada’s term.
Bolivia's conflicts regarding the proposal to export the nation's gas to the US through a Chilean port proved to be the spark that fueled a much larger fire of national discontent. Arising from the din of the Gas War were demands for clarity in coca eradication laws, rejection of the ALCA free trade agreement, rejection of harsh national security legislature and demands for better wages. After more than a month of what might have become a fierce civil war, which produced nearly eighty dead and five hundred wounded, the president resigned.
INCOME TAX SETS OFF POLICE REBELLION
On February 11, the Bolivian National Police force threw up its hands in
La Paz and decided to not leave its stations. Although the force had
been a traditional ally of the MNR ruling party, increasing strength of
the armed forces, at the expense of internal law enforcement and the
economic crisis had caused deep-rooted resentment. Police forces in
Cochabamba and Santa Cruz joined the strike on February 12. The “mutiny”
is in response to the Sánchez de Lozada government’s announcement of a new
tax of approximately 12.5% to be deducted from all salaried employees who
received more than four times the minimum wage. The tax is in addition to
a pre-existing “added value” tax of 12.5%, which would be slightly
reduced. The salary deductions (including pension funds) of the average
Bolivian would increase to over 30%. As one citizen lamented, “We would
have to earn a living wage, before we could pay taxes on it.”
Originally published in the Miami Herald, Op-Ed section on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2002.
Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada meets today with President
Bush in Washington, D.C. The perennial U.S. determination to fight drugs
by ripping up coca plants will certainly drive the meeting. As
representatives of NGOs who monitor drug policy in Bolivia, we hope that
the presidents face up to some uncomfortable facts.
U.S. international drug-control policy is ineffective. Over the last
decade, despite spending more than $25 billion on drug-control programs
overseas, more illicit drugs are available in the United States, and at
cheaper prices, than ever before. Plan Colombia was so profoundly
unsuccessful that coca cultivation in the Andean region increased 21
percent during the plan's first year.
Originally published in The Washington Post: Sep 29, 1995. pg. A.18.
The circle of coca growers in this small town drew closer when one of the leaders, a man who was sitting on a pink plastic sack filled with coca leaves, dropped the lofty arguments and delivered a more direct pitch.
"These are not mafiosos!" he declared. "We are talking, whether you believe it or not, about a vegetable product. Where do you see a chalet here? Do narco-traffickers dress like this?"
The little girl he pointed to was wearing an old T-shirt and old pants, a common uniform here in southern Bolivia's illegal coca belt, the Chapare. Some of the peasants, laconic coca growers waiting for middlemen to pick up their harvest, nodded as the man finished delivering the mantra of towns like this: Coca is not cocaine; peasants are not criminals.