issue 140 October 1984
Mama Coca the medicine
Bolivian peasants depend on coca for their livelihood. So American efforts to destroy the supply of cocaine at source hurt more than pride. Mike Rose hears about the peasant vision of a Latin American pharmaceutical industry based on coca – and authority’s refusal to take it seriously.
IN Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, bowler-hatted indian women sell coca leaves by kilo from large sacks in the market. Locals buy it in small quantities for rolling and chewing with a sulphur compound, or else for boiling to make a medicine. The leaf has been used beneficially by Bolivian peasants since time immemorial as a natural painkiller, as insulation against the biting cold of the high Andes, or just as a mild stimulant.
Yet now that the refined product, cocaine, has become highly fashionable in North America and Western Europe, the US drugs authorities are spending millions of dollars on programmes aimed at destroying the coca crop at source.
Not surprisingly, many Bolivians feel that their nation is being made a scapegoat. Bolivian peasant leader Jose Vallegos gave vent to his anger: ‘Why should we be made to pay for the inadequacies of the rich gringos? We are not responsible for the thousands who seek salvation in abusing drugs. We have used the products of nature for hundreds of years. They should look to the rot in their own societies before dictating to us how we should run ours.’
His sentiments were echoed in a weekly political magazine. Commenting on a report that the US-sponsored eradication programme had just received another 31 million dollars, it advised Bolivians not to feel guilty about growing coca. After all, it asked, do Americans or Europeans have a sense of guilt when they sell weapons used to kill and maim in distant lands?
Last year Jose and other peasant leaders from the coca-producing areas of Chapare and Chimore reacted angrily to smear campaigns linking them to the cocaine god-fathers. They bought full-page advertising space in the national press to argue for the legalizing of the coca industry and its development into a modern pharmaceutical industry. Bolivians could learn new skills and earn good wages in an industry whose competitively priced products would attract worldwide demand.
They pointed to the absurdity of the Andean countries’ annual outlay to the giant drug corporations of 150 million dollars for synthetic anaesthetics. With proper planning and sufficient capitalization, a whole new range of low-cost anaesthetics. concentrated nutritional aids and soft-drinks ingredients could be developed which would ensure Bolivia a major role in the international drugs market. What’s more, claimed the peasants, the legalized large-scale exploitation of coca could undermine the big-time crime syndicates which thrive on its illegitimacy.
They cited several investigations by prestigious bodies like the US Congress and the Washington-based National Institute of Drugs as confirming the important social, economic and medicinal implications of coca production in Bolivia.
But when they went to talk with US and Bolivian officials, they were told their proposals were impractical and shown the door. Jose has little doubt that the obstinacy of the authorities is fuelled by the vested interests of the drug companies. ‘If Bolivia developed a viable pharmaceutical industry, it would give an incentive to other Third World nations. This would undermine the stranglehold of the multinationals who make a fortune in poor countries like ours.’
Meanwhile, coca production continues unabated. The eradication programme barely touches the tip of the iceberg, exposing a few small producers while the big narcotics syndicates operate with impunity. To say that coca is big business in Bolivia is an understatement — it is ten times she size of the principal legal industry, tin mining. Of the estimated annual turnover of one billion dollars, the great bulk is attributable to the illegal production of cocaine.
Much of this vast sum finds its way to the Swiss bank accounts of the cocaine god-fathers. But some returns to boost the living standards of some of Latin America’s poorest people. Around 600,000 Bolivians work in the coca industry, over ten per cent of the population. Most are highland peasants, Quechua- and Aymara- speaking Amerindians who are traditionally amongst the poorest in a generally impoverished society. Many of the minuscule and exhausted plots of land are unable to sustain a family. To add to the hardship, natural cataclysms in the form of droughts and floods have ravaged what crops they have managed to grow.
In a nation where the average life span is 47 years and infant mortality is a grotesque 30 per cent, any opportunity to earn is eagerly seized. With Bolivian industry in a state of severe decline there are no legal jobs and, with little or no welfare facilities for peasants, whole families face starvation. No wonder they flock to the coca-producing regions around the colonial city of Cochabamba where the bulk of the annual 100,000 tonne crop is grown.
Juanito Chukki is typical of the peasants who work on the coca plantations. The tiny plot of land he and his wife Adela worked near the mining town of Oruro barely provided enough food for them and their five children. When two of the children fell ill with stomach problems, there was no money for proper care. They both died.
Now Juanito can earn up to five dollars a day treading coca leaves on a plantation in Chapare. ‘Now I can afford to buy my family clothes and medicine and good food. I am no longer afraid for the survival of my children,’ he says. Juanito sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. People have been processing coca leaves for centuries. I am working hard to give my family a better life. What’s wrong with that?’ he asks.
Wages in the coca producing areas are up to five times as high as in other rural jobs. But the exodus to the coca plantations has had another effect — it has made rural labour scarcer, pushing up the once pitifully poor wage level of other peasants. With no other way out of the absolute poverty trap, there is little doubt that coca has been a blessing for many a Bolivian.
But those who have reaped the real profits are the big-time operators, the cocaine god-fathers. Bolivia’s undisputed drugs king is Roberto Suarez, an entrepreneur in his fifties who owns a fiefdom the size of Wales in the remote jungle area of Beni. His word is law there. His private army is better equipped than the Bolivian army and his fleet of aircraft more modern than the Bolivian air-force.
Worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Suarez’s private bank account is said to exceed the nation’s reserves in the Bolivian Central Bank, and he once offered to pay off the entire national debt in return for immunity from prosecution and the right to travel in and out of the United States.
Suarez was behind the 1980 military coup which brought the drug-trafficking regime of President Luis Garcia Meza to power. Garcia Meza, an army general, is said to have received millions of dollars from Suarez to purchase the allegiance of key military commanders.
The interior minister, Colonel Luis Arce Gomez, was another of Bolivia’s cocaine godfathers. He is wanted in the United States for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine. US diplomats and human rights groups have accused Arce Gomez of operating military torture centres and paramilitary groups as part of his drugs empire. When the then US ambassador Edwin Corr accused him of drug trafficking, a right wing paramilitary death squad called ‘Sovereignty' threatened to kill the American envoy for being ‘a representative of international communism and North American Judaism'.
The recent failed coup attempt when the Bolivian president was kidnapped was rumoured to have been backed by Suarez in an attempt to bring back Arce Gomez and Garcia Meza from their luxurious Argentine exile. However, some political analysts discount the rumour, pointing out that the country is so impoverished that nobody wants it any more. Why struggle with the problems of a bankrupt state in cold and dusty La Paz when one can live off the proceeds of cocaine in the tropical drugs capital of Santa Cruz?
Peasant leaders don’t agree that Bolivian indians are trying to undermine North America and Europe by promoting drug abuse. Jose Vallegos points out that, for most peasants, working in the coca industry is simply a question of survival in a society where few alternatives exist. Of course the involvement of big crime syndicates doesn’t help. But even they provide a source of employment and pay good wages. Until the peasants are given decent legal opportunities to improve their living standards, they will continue to work on mama coca.
Mike Rose is a British freelance journalist who writes mainly about Latin America.