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Published on Monday, October 2, 2000 by The Democracy Center
US Drug War At Center Stage In Renewed Bolivian Violence
by Jim Shultz
Dear Readers:

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:

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center

US Drug War At Center Stage In Renewed Bolivian Violence

Cochabamba, Bolivia
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 military bases.

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.


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.


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 narcotrafficking."

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 people.''

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.


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.


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