“Coca Is Not Cocaine”

Click here  to see a slide show of images from Cochamba, Bolivia.

Evo Morales in his office at the MAS headquarters in Cochabamba
Evo Morales in his office at the MAS headquarters in Cochabamba

COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA—A leather-faced Indian wearing an embroidered technicolor ensemble sits down next to me in the waiting room of the Movement Toward Socialism (known in Spanish as MAS) headquarters, looking like he just stepped out of a time machine. I compliment him on his jazzy get-up. He smiles proudly and tells me, in broken Spanish, that it’s Incan. I tell him I’m here to talk to Evo Morales. He nods knowingly and borrows my pen and paper to write his name and provenance. I read that he hails from the “Regional Union of the Indigenous District of Raqay Pampa,” a remote outpost three or four hours’ drive from Cochabamba. He has undertaken a long journey to pay his respects to the chief.

Just then, Evo Morales breezes into the waiting room, wearing chinos and a Polartec jacket. He looks more like an ad for Eddie Bauer than the leader of Latin America’s best-organized indigenous movement. MAS party members and other hangers-on immediately clamor around him. Morales works the room, displaying a magnanimous concern for his people. At nearly 6 feet tall, he towers over his constituents, mainly poor farmers from the tropics of Cochabamba. But the crowd also includes the members of the press and city-dwellers, testimony to Morales’ stature and broadening appeal.

A longtime champion of Bolivia’s coca growers and thorn in the side of pro-market governments, Evo, as they call him, is trying to refashion himself as the leader of all Bolivians. His strategy of uniting indigenous groups—long excluded from the Bolivian political system—with other disaffected voters nearly carried him to victory in the 2002 presidential election. He is ready for another go at the presidency, and if the October unrest that sent former President Sanchez de Lozada fleeing the country resumes, Morales may get his chance well before the scheduled 2007 elections.

As president, Morales would likely turn his “coca is not cocaine” battle cry into the law of the land, reversing nearly 20 years of U.S.-funded coca eradication and alternative development policy in Bolivia. Even more nettlesome to Washington, Morales makes no secret of his distaste for U.S.-backed neoliberal policies and American intrusion in the region. A Morales presidency would no doubt add Bolivia to the roster of populist Latin American governments inconvenient to the United States.

Once we are face-to-face in his office, Morales speaks bluntly about coca. “The policies implemented by the United States in the war on drugs are a complete disaster,” he declares emphatically, referring to the U.S.-funded coca-eradication campaign in Bolivia that has brought about the militarization of Chapare. He places the blame for the drug problem squarely on the American appetite for cocaine. “The origin of narco-trafficking is the demand. The market. When you don’t deal with the demand of the market, the problem is going to continue to grow.”

“To defend the coca leaf is not to defend narco-trafficking,” Morales says matter-of-factly, repeating the coca growers’ refrain and the MAS party line as if it were the irrefutable truth. Though most Bolivians drink coca tea and many chew the coca leaf, this legal market is small. The coca growers distance themselves from the drug trade by claiming ignorance of the source of the demand for coca leaves. According to Morales, narco-trafficking should be stamped out everywhere, including in Bolivia, but coca production should be legal and subject to no limits, never mind that coca is the primary ingredient in cocaine.

Morales describes the U.S.-funded alternative development effort in Chapare as a misguided policy that merely pushes poor farmers to produce crops for which there is little demand. His solution is a radical overhaul of the current policies. “Rather than give us money for repression, why doesn’t the international community support us by buying our [alternative] products at subsidized prices?”

From the drug war to neoliberalism, Morales stands firmly against what he sees as undue Yankee interference in the region. Chipper and relaxed, he conjures an image of a Pan-Latin force that faces down the U.S. hegemony: “We have to look for Latin American unity. We have to strengthen the socialist movements, to stop the aggression of the imperialist.” Morales sees a decisive role for the indigenous movement in this showdown. “We are the nightmare of the United States, all because we represent a new politics of life, a politics of defense of humanity,” he declares.

A campaign poster that hangs on the wall behind him perfectly captures Morales’ vision for the indigenous masses. Kitschy headshots of MAS members of congress, most in traditional clothing, are piled up under a blow-up of Morales wearing some sort of lei. A silhouette of a faceless Indian, illuminated by bright sunshine and brandishing a rainbow checkered flag—the symbol of indigenous unity—towers over them. Inscribed at the top is Indian insurrectionist Tupac Katari’s legendary promise to the Spanish army before his execution in 1781: “I will return, and I will be millions.” As if to decipher the poster’s rather unsubtle meaning, Morales declares, “After 500 years of resistance, we’ve decided to change from resisting to seizing power, like absolute owners of this noble land.”

Ever since he won an astonishing 20.9 percent of the vote, versus Sanchez de Lozada’s 22.5 percent, in the last presidential election, Morales has watched his prestige soar internationally. Erstwhile curiosity of the Bolivian political scene, Morales now hobnobs with friends Hugo and Fidel. His editorials grace the pages of the Financial Times and the Washington Post. He recently had the dubious honor of receiving a peace prize from Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.

Official U.S. distaste for Morales’ coca politics and socialist ideas has only burnished his image at home. During the 2002 presidential election, the U.S. ambassador warned the Bolivian people that a Morales win would result in the withdrawal of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. The approach backfired, and outraged Bolivians voted for Morales in droves. Morales can barely conceal his delight when he recalls the embassy’s gaffe. “The enemies were transformed into the campaign managers of MAS and of Evo Morales,” he quips.

Among Bolivians, Morales has capitalized on his image as a genuine man of the people in a sea of corrupt politicians. “He’s never betrayed us,” insists MAS congresswoman Elena Almendras. Born to a Quechua mother and Aymara father, Morales ascended the ranks of Chapare’s coca growers’ union—known for the hard-nosed politics of its members—to become its most able leader. He cannily placed the cocaleros’ cause at the forefront of the national dialogue by organizing road blockades that paralyzed the country. Bolivians recall the miserable Spanish he spoke early in his political career: Morales would frequently lapse into Quechua, the dominant indigenous language of Chapare, on the evening news.

Now that his political ambitions have grown, Morales’ challenge will be to soften his strong association—in the eyes of most Bolivians—with the coca growers. Congresswoman Almendras, who wears the traditional long braids, full skirt, and bowler hat of an indigenous woman, claims, “MAS wants to lead all Bolivians, not just the coca growers. It wants to lead the Guaranis, the Aymara, the cocaleros, all the poor.”

But Bolivian economist Fernando Bustamante remains skeptical. “Evo has lots of problems at home, especially among other socialist groups. It’s difficult to say that he’s a national leader.” Though six out of every 10 Bolivians are indigenous, Bustamante believes that uniting Bolivia’s 30-plus indigenous groups under one political movement may be impossible. Morales’ base of support is overwhelmingly concentrated in the tropical lowlands and high valleys in the center of the country. “The Indians from the east, for example, will never recognize him as their leader,” claims Bustamante.

Moreover, the middle class is not likely to embrace MAS’s plans for land reform and the socialization of the economy. “I don’t know what will happen to Bolivia. But, to be sure, the party of the cocaleros will not represent my interests,” one young professional told me. “Things will change for us, and for the worse. I’m thinking of leaving the country.”

But, when asked how MAS will become the leader of all Bolivians, Morales is sanguine. Flashing a confident grin, he chirps, “We already are.”