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Coca politics

In Bolivia, coca growers have turned the 'sacred leaf' into a national symbol

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the United Nations reported that Colombia's coca crop production has fallen 32 percent since the beginning of the year. Champions of the US-financed eradication campaign declared a victory for the Bush administration's drug policy, but others noted that production is rising in nearby Peru and Bolivia. Indeed, in Bolivia, a defiant and popular grass-roots movement has come to identify the coca leaf with the spirit and future of the nation itself. If the United States is winning the drug war on one front, it may be losing it elsewhere -- and badly.

The United States pays the Bolivian government $100 million a year to wipe out coca leaves destined for the drug trade. (A small amount is legally sold for traditional domestic use.) While the Bolivian military has had intermittent success in suppressing cultivation, the coca-growers, or cocaleros -- some 50,000 families, in a population of 8 million -- are leading a groundswell of hostility to the army's efforts.

In elections in 2002 the cocalero Evo Morales, who called for an immediate end to eradication, missed winning the presidency by only 1.5 percent of the vote, while his party won one-fifth of the seats in congress. Morales opposes almost every policy the United States supports, including IMF-style fiscal austerity plans; his popularity surged after the then-US ambassador spoke out against him. Many believe that if new elections were held tomorrow the cocaleros would come to power -- placing US policy makers in an awkward position.

The cocaleros take no responsibility for the cocaine trade, which they blame on First World demand. There is some hypocrisy in their position, as their organization is based in a region of Bolivia where coca is grown mainly for Colombian cartels. Indeed, ending eradication would effectively amount to decriminalizing the export of cocaine. Yet many of those who grow the green leaves have never seen the white powder of cocaine. And no evidence has linked Morales himself to the cartels, while many of his mainstream political opponents have been accused of taking payoffs from drug dealers -- allowing the cocaleros, paradoxically, the moral high ground when it comes to illegal activities.

The growers know where the coca is going -- some carry the leaves to jungle laboratories and stamp it down in kerosene to begin the refining process. Yet Bolivians' involvement in international trafficking has remained small. Most cocaleros work for themselves on their own land, earning independence though seldom wealth, and this gives the crop a positive image in public opinion.

The plant also has a unique prestige as the "sacred coca leaf," which has lain at the heart of Andean folk religion since ancient times. The culture and languages of the ancient Inca empire survive more strongly in Bolivia than in the neighboring Andean countries of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, and coca symbolizes that survival. The leaf, which was domesticated over 4,000 years ago, can be brewed as a tea, but is usually chewed with a bitter wood-ash paste to bring out stimulant properties similar to those of caffeine or nicotine. (Native languages have several forms of the verb "to chew" used only for coca.) It dampens hunger, fatigue, and (as foreign visitors appreciate) altitude sickness.

Throughout the Andes, country people share coca in agricultural rituals, to mark the purchase of a new truck or just to pass a sociable hour. Chewers typically begin by blowing on three carefully selected leaves held between four fingers, and follow a protocol of prayers and invitations as elaborate as a Japanese tea ceremony.

Coca was one of the natural stimulants Europeans found when they first came to America, along with chocolate and tobacco. The latter two became world commodities, while coca stayed at home -- for a while. It took on a higher profile in the 19th century when German chemists isolated cocaine from coca leaves and hucksters promoted it as a tonic, most notably in the form of Coca-Cola.

But while cocaine took on a life of its own, coca-chewing remained a rural habit of the Andean Indian majority, despised by the Spanish-speaking elite. In the 1960s the Bolivian government signed on to a 1961 United Nations plan to wipe out the habit in 25 years, as an impediment to national health and progress.

Not only did the plan fail, it led to a backlash as the coca question became one of indigenous pride. In the past 40 years Indian communities have increasingly demanded a role in the Bolivian state -- a nation where most people live in villages and speak the native Quechua and Aymara languages. Beginning in the 1970s, university students rejected assimilation into the dominant Spanish-speaking culture and agitated for Indian rights. Assuming pre-Hispanic leadership titles, they took over government-sponsored farmers' unions and organized them to fight for native land and autonomy.

These activists revived stories of Indian rebels who resisted the Spanish empire, celebrating them in native-language radio programs. (At least one activist spent a prison term earning a university degree in history.) The most famous was Tupac Katari, who laid siege to the Spanish city of La Paz in 1781, leading a major revolt just as British colonists won independence in North America.

Unlike Washington and Adams, Tupac Katari was defeated and executed. But two centuries later his memory is revered. The manifesto of the pro-indigenous "Katarista" movement announces, "Tupac Katari vive y vuelve, carajo!" (Tupac Katari is alive and returning, dammit!)

Eighteenth-century memories are especially resonant because Bolivia is in many ways still the same country -- far more than the United States today is the country of Valley Forge. Bolivia is still small, poor, and rural, with an indigenous majority working the land and cleaning the houses of a light-skinned, Spanish-speaking elite. When indigenous groups blockade the roads into Bolivia's cities to protest government policy, they recall Tupac Katari's siege in 1781.

The cocaleros have drawn much of their electoral success from a close association with the Indian peasant unions. Morales, who was born in an impoverished village and speaks Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara, migrated from the cold Andean highlands to the hot lowlands where coca grows, to seek his fortune -- the story of many cocaleros. His brother stayed behind and leads a highland farmers' union.

The cocalero movement has a broader appeal than the Kataristas: It preaches a populist message of anti-globalization as well as the Kataristas' ethnic pride. In the last week it has led nationwide protests against a government plan to export natural gas via a multinational company. But the defense of the Andean coca leaf is at the heart of its successful politics.

During Tupac Katari's uprising, insurgents crammed coca leaves in the mouths of Spanish speakers and forced them to chew, humiliating those who saw in coca a symbol of native people's inferiority. There is something of the same defiance in the cocalero movement today. On the floor of congress, their representatives often give speeches in native languages and chew coca. Whether American diplomats and elite politicians like it or not, they've reclaimed the stigmatized coca leaf as a symbol of national pride.

Jeremy Mumford is a graduate student in Latin American history at Yale University.

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