Dispatch From Bolivia

Will the leftist group that formed to fight U.S. anti-drug efforts bring down the government?

Evo Morales (in the center in a white shirt wearing a garland), marching

LA PAZ, Bolivia—In most Latin American countries, you’d rather not share a plane with the left-wing opposition leader on the eve of a national political crisis. But such was my luck last Saturday as I sat on the tarmac with Evo Morales, leader of Bolivia’s—and the world’s—strongest indigenous movement.

Morales was heading from Cochabamba, his base and source of power, to La Paz, the nation’s capital, where his political future hangs in the balance. The political crisis that erupted in violence this week in La Paz and in neighboring El Alto revolves around the question of who controls and profits from Bolivia’s vast reserves of natural gas. This week’s protests are not about coca, cocaine, or the drug war, but without Morales’ and his movement’s involvement, it would likely be nothing more than a marginal demonstration leading to a march around town, a few speeches, and a natural-gas law written by oil companies. And in large part, Evo Morales is a blowback product of the U.S. drug war, since he rose to prominence defending impoverished coca growers against U.S.-funded eradication efforts.

In 1985, Bolivia became a testing ground for extreme neoliberalism and “shock therapy,” and it is being watched closely this week by international financial institutions, as well as U.S. drug warriors concerned about the cocaine trade. Before the late ‘90s, few outside of Bolivia would have paid attention to a crisis involving natural gas, or much of anything in Bolivia for that matter. But recent discoveries have shown proven natural-gas reserves of 820 billion cubic meters, as of 2002, up from 120 billion in 1993, according to BP. To put that in context, BP figures that Bolivia is sitting on roughly $250 billion of proven reserves. Those vast resources, combined with the rise of Evo Morales and a general leftward tilt across South America, make this crisis a crucial showdown.

The uprising in La Paz had been scheduled to begin last Monday but, this being Latin America, it was postponed a week. That gave me time to dip into the Chapare jungle, a suptropical region renowned for its vast production of coca—the plant needed to make cocaine. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Chapare produced more than 90 percent of Bolivia’s coca, when the nation produced coca leaves for between a third and one-half of the world’s cocaine. Production had declined since then as a result of anti-coca efforts, but rebounded by 10 percent in 2004, according to the U.S. State Department. Production will likely be higher in 2005, as Morales’ party was able to secure an agreement with President Carlos Mesa to allow 3,200 hectares—about 8,000 acres—of coca to be exempt from eradication in the Chapare. The region is a stronghold of Morales’ party, Movement Toward Socialism (known by its Spanish acronym, MAS), and was Morales’ home when he was a coca grower, or cocalero.

Feliciano Mamani and Rimer Agreda, MAS party leaders, cocaleros, and the mayors of Villa Tunari and Shinahota, respectively, major towns in the Chapare region, came up through the ranks during the ‘80s and ‘90s. “The war made the American government’s intentions clear to the people of Chapare. Behind the war on drugs there are other interests. Interests in natural resources, and in dismantling the [MAS] unions in the Chapare,” said Mamani. Agreda added, “There was a reaction of the people, and they decided to oppose this until they reached their goal.”

It’s one thing for MAS party leaders to believe that they gained their strength in reaction to the U.S. war on drugs, but I wanted to hear what the military itself had to say. Maj. Fernando Plata, a commander in a U.S.-funded anti-drug police unit called UMOPAR, told me that the human rights abuses that took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s sparked fierce resistance among the people of the region, which MAS channeled to build its organization.

Jaimie Rojas, a 74-year-old newspaper vendor in Villa Tunari, recently enrolled in college in Cochabamba, several hours’ drive away. Don Jaimie has been in Chapare longer than almost anyone else. He arrived as one of the early settlers in the 1950s and has known Morales and the other MAS leaders since they were in their early 20s. I asked him when he noticed Morales’ leadership skills. “When UMOPAR came to Chapare and Evo spoke out against it,” he said. “He was able to unite the people and have them all turn back UMOPAR.”

Don Jaimie is not alone in his assessment. Back in January 2004, Robert Novak said: “The backlash to U.S.-sponsored coca eradication in Bolivia was behind the violent ouster Oct. 17 … of Washington’s friend in La Paz, [President] Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.” The dispute that led to Lozada’s ouster was over natural gas, as is the current crisis. President Carlos Mesa, who took control when Lozada stood down in 2003, has so far vowed that he will not resign over this week’s protests, but only time will tell.

MAS has taken the strength it has gained in the past few decades and now projects it on a national scale. Morales was the second-place finisher in the June 2002 election, and thousands of party members marched for up to five days to get to La Paz early this week.

On Monday, MAS and other social movements, many of which consider Morales too moderate, kicked off an indefinite blockade of the capital with a march from El Alto to Plaza San Francisco in La Paz. Before Morales arrived, another rally—sparsely attended compared with the MAS march—led by scattered left-wing figures had already gotten under way. These protesters, representing miners, teachers, a few indigenous groups, and others call for a return to full nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas industry. Their chants scorned Morales’ more conservative proposal of a 50 percent tax directly at the tap, so that companies would be taxed on their extraction rather than their reported profits. A law passed May 17 tacked a 32 percent nondeductible tax on top of current 18 percent royalties. Opponents—from Morales to those calling for nationalization—say that the tax can easily be avoided by companies improperly reporting profits.

Morales entered Plaza San Francisco amid cheers as well as angry chants of “Nacionalización!” But the two groups merged peacefully.

Protesters’ handiwork in the streets of La Paz 

Though it was MAS that gave this week of demonstrations the muscle it needed, it was groups to the left of Morales’ that escalated confrontations with the police Tuesday. While marching with indigenous Aymara campesinos, I watched as they took pains to smash as many car and bus windows as they could, often with the drivers and passengers still inside. Once they were a block away from Plaza Murillo, home of the presidential palace, a standoff with police in riot gear ensued. From reading the protesters’ banners and speaking with several of them, it was clear that these poor farmers, from the highlands north of La Paz, were not directly associated with MAS and the Chapare cocaleros.

About 5 feet in front of me, an Aymara man tossed dynamite at the police line facing us. The stick exploded in the middle of three officers, who protected themselves with their riot shields. Rocks and bottles were lofted from the crowd, followed by a massive explosion behind us. Police reacted by firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into the crowd, which turned and fled. Sprinting uphill at more than 13,000 feet above sea level is difficult enough without a lung full of tear gas, but there was enough incentive that the demonstrators were able to pull it off.

Two police officers in Plaza San Francisco, moments before they fire

Another group of marchers collected in Plaza San Francisco around 2 p.m. This group was less organized than the one earlier, but interviews with a few indicated that they were generally workers from El Alto. After a man just to my right threw a rock at the police line from about 10 feet away, striking one officer in the face mask, police replied by firing canisters directly at us, one rocketing just past my midsection, while a colleague in front of me hit the ground to duck the volley. The plaza filled with a dense and choking fog.

Early on Wednesday, two Bolivian military leaders, Lt. Cols. Julio Cesar Galindo and Julio Herrera, went on television to call for the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas, the president’s resignation, and his replacement by a civil-military government. They have since been repudiated by Bolivia’s defense minister, Gen. Gonzalo Arredondo, as well as by MAS, but their statements were enough to provoke widespread rumors of a left-wing coup.

All day Wednesday police clashed with protesters. On one corner near the presidential palace, I watched as cops frantically scattered to avoid a massive bomb rolled in our direction. It exploded before reaching us, shattering windows up and down Calle Yancoha. Police regrouped and responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Protesters followed with another glass-shattering bomb.

No one knows for sure where this crisis is heading. The congress is closed for the week, President Mesa is in the quiet provincial city of Sucre, and the U.S. ambassador is back in the United States. Skirmishes continue as I write this—the pop of tear gas followed by the pounding feet of fleeing protesters.