I am sorry to report that, once again, I am writing from a Bolivia in the
midst of conflict. A series of national strikes and highway blockades
which began two weeks ago has been met with 20,000 government troops using
tear gas and live rounds in abundance. At least ten are dead, more than a
hundred injured and many jailed. The U.S. State Department has publicly
declared its support for the government's actions. Below is my dispatch
from Bolivia, which will be circulated to news outlets in the U.S. Monday
morning by Pacific News Service. I hope you will share it with others to
keep Bolivia in the U.S. public eye.
The only help I am asking for at this time is the following. Many of the
injured are children, many maimed beyond Bolivian medicine's ability to help
them. This includes a six year old girl whose nose and face was decimated
Saturday morning by a government tear gas canister. If any of you have
contacts or suggestions of resources to help these children with
appropriate medical attention, please contact me at:
The Democracy Center
US Drug War At Center Stage In Renewed Bolivian Violence
October 1, 2000
While Colombia and Peru have been catching more of the worldís Andean
attention for the past few weeks, Bolivia suffers one of its worst
political and social crises in decades. Two weeks ago an informal alliance
of teachers, farmers, rural water users and others began a series of
national protest actions aimed at forcing the Bolivian government to the
table over a mix of issues including teacher salaries, eradication of the
last remaining coca crop, and the construction of three new, U.S.-financed
A nationwide teachers strike has left virtually the entire Bolivian public
school system idle during the final weeks of the South American school
year. Blockades of the major national highways have brought virtually all
overland travel and commerce to full stop. Boliviaís President, Hugo
Banzer, who ruled the nation as a dictator during much of the 1970s, has
deployed more than 20,000 soldiers and police in an effort to stop the
protests by force.
U.S. BACKS CRACKDOWN, DESPITE KILLINGS
At least ten people have been killed by government fire, more than 100
injured, and an unknown number jailed. Eye witnesses have reported that
much of the shooting is being carried out by army officers, including
long-distance sharp shooters. The current crisis comes just six months
after President Hugo Banzer declared a national "state of emergency" in an
unsuccessful effort to stop a civic uprising over water privatization.
Those protests forced the departure of a subsidiary of the U.S. Bechtel
Corporation which had raised rates as much as 300%.
On Friday in Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher
declared the U.S.ís support for Banzerís actions, saying, "We share and
fully support President Hugo Banzer's call for communication and
reconciliation." Hours later, just before dawn on Saturday, Banzerís
government sent 1500 troops into the small town of Vinto, in an attempt to
remove a highway blockade there. Soldiers killed a 25 year old taxi
driver, Benito Espinoza Saravia, injured 29 others, including six year old
Ximena Zenteno who had her nose destroyed by an army tear gas canister.
US DRUG WAR AT ISSUE
On Saturday, Bolivian government officials sat down for negotiations with
various movement leaders, convened by the Catholic Archbishop. Sources
close to the talks say that the hardest issues deal with the Bolivian
governmentís US-financed plan to eradicate the last remaining 5% of the
countryís illegal coca leaf crop. That plan involves building three new
military bases in the Chapare region, the chief coca growing area. To be
built with $6 million in U.S. assistance, the bases would permanently
deploy 1,500 troops in the area, a move bitterly opposed by local residents
and many human rights groups.
"These bases were never debated in the Bolivian Congress or by the
Bolivian people," says Edwin Claros, Vice President of the Assembly on
Human Rights in Cochabamba. "The role of the military is to protect our
borders, not to wage war with our own people. The bases will definitely
mean more use of the military in the region and more violations of human
rights." Late Saturday the government announced that it would back away
from its hard-line insistence on the bases, but only with the alternative
of expanding the militaryís presence at an existing base in the area.
Arguing for a permanent military presence in the region in a televised
speech to the nation last Wednesday, Banzer proclaimed, "We canít leave
those areas unprotected to be retaken by the black market of
Despite U.S. Ambassador, V. Manuel Rochaís public declaration last week
that the bases were, "not an imposition by the US government but a decision
by the Bolivian government," many here question whether the US is voicing
that same flexibility behind closed doors. An Embassy official, speaking
on condition of anonymity, admitted that if Bolivia should back way from
the US-financed base plan, it could create doubts about the Bolivian
governmentís much-touted pledge to make the country "free of illegal coca"
by 2002. Said the official, "That would leave open the question: If you
are committed to eradicate coca using the military, how are you going to
continue it without a military presence?"
In September the Bolivian governmentís coca eradication efforts were cited
by President Clinton as his main reason for proposing that the U.S. and
other lenders forgive the nationís multi-million dollar foreign debt. U.S.
officials would very much like to use Bolivia as a model of a successful
eradication effort, especially with the Clinton Administrationís new $1.3
billion military-led coca eradication plan in Colombia.
Even with the apparent government concession on the bases, it is unclear
how long the conflict may continue between the government and coca farmers
in the Chapare region. Blockades there have cut off highway passage
between the nationís second and third largest cities, Cochabamba and Santa
Cruz. Representatives of farmers are demanding that they be allowed to
continue growing small plots of the plant (less than 1/2 an acre). With
nearly 95% of the crop already eradicated in the region, they argue, the
small crops that remain would be for traditional uses, including the
wide-spread Bolivian practice of chewing coca leaves. Talking about the
eradication program this week, a top Bolivian official admitted, "We've
also wiped out the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands, maybe one million
While the coca leaf is the base ingredient for cocaine, it only takes on
the drugís effects after being substantially processed with powerful
chemicals. Unprocessed coca leaves are legal, sold and chewed widely and
also used for commercial production of coca tea, popular as a treatment for
stomach and altitude ailments. Coca farmers also note that small plantings
are allowed under the nationís coca-eradication law approved under U.S.
pressure in 1988.
FOOD SHORTAGES AND PATIENCE WEARING THIN
Meanwhile, food shortages caused by the blockades have started to take
effect in some cities and many Bolivians are growing weary of the protest,
lobbing criticisms and more at both sides. A collection of childrenís
drawings pasted to the wall of one Cochabamba school shows images of
soldiers opening fire on people and trucks stopped at blockades, along with
writings such as: "I want peace; Donít throw rocks; and Donít kill people."
A week ago, angry chicken producers dumped a pile of 1000 dead and rotting
birds on the front steps of the Cochabamba state governor and of one
protest group. The birds died when their food supplies were cutoff by the
blockades. An informal poll by a daily newspaper here of 1440 readers
voiced a 51% level of support for the protesters and their demands.
Following the end of negotiations Saturday, representatives of the various
groups returned home to their local bases to consult on possible accords.
Over the weekend some coca farmers announced that they were prepared to
take up firearms if needed to protect their land if the government did not
reach an acceptable agreement. The highway blockades, public
mobilizations, and military deployments continue throughout the nation,
creating a palatable air of tension and with no immediate end in sight.