Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.
by Peter Gorman
Just three months into his term, Bolivia’s new president, Juan Evo Morales Ayma is discovering that what he’d put on the table in order to get elected and the reality of the Bolivian political system are not just disparate, they may be irreconcilable. During the months of March and April, strikes by workers and unionists—the kind Morales was famous for leading—have blocked roads and airports, putting Morales-as-president in the unfamiliar role of strike-buster, rather than in his more familiar role as strike-organizer.
Morales, an Ayamara Indian who grew up in poverty as the son of a dirt farmer, won the recent presidential elections on the strength of the voices of the “forgotten people” as he called them, the vast majority of Bolivia’s 9.4 million citizens, more than two-thirds of which are indigenous Ayamara and Quechua people, whose voices, until recently have rarely, if ever, been heard. While their silence was initially the result of the Spanish conquest nearly 500 years ago, and later a result of the land-locked Andean nation’s de facto rule by oligarchy, during the past 35-years Bolivia’s indigenous majority has largely been kept silent and impoverished as a result of US-machinations, both politically and economically.
Morales’ platform promises to those people included legalization of all coca growing for industrial purposes—and with it the end of all forced eradication programs. (The coca leaf is already legal for locals who have used the sacred plant for as long as Bolivia, like Peru and Ecuador, has been inhabited, but for the past 20-years has been subject to eradication programs pushed by the US, which holds vital purse strings on which Bolivia has long depended.) He also promised to either nationalize or demand a larger slice of the pie from several industries—particularly the natural gas industry—which previous administrations have sold to foreign corporations. While those promises resonated with a populace which has been suffering for centuries, they put fear into the heart of international investors, corporations, and the US government, which sees Morales as a smaller version of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, a definite threat to the US-based free-trade, global economy policies it’s been trying to enact throughout Central and South America.
While those US policies are relatively new, the policy of US-intervention in Latin America dates back more than a century. In Bolivia, US attempts to impose its policies can be dated back to 1971, when strongman Hugo Banzer, trained at the notorious US School of the Americas, took dictatorial control of Bolivia after leading a successful US-backed coup against the legitimate president of the time. During Banzer’s tenure he banned socialist movements, closed universities, and operated death-squads that saw the disappearance of more than 3,000 of his political enemies, most of whom were Communists, the US bogeyman of the era. Simultaneously, he was widely known as the man through whose hands all of the country’s cocaine—and Bolivia was the world’s leading producer at the time—passed. If the US was not complicit in the trade, it was certainly willing to let it occur so long as Banzer eliminated any potential communist threat in the region. He resigned in 1978, a very wealthy man.
Nearly 20-years later, in 1997, Banzer returned to power as the democratically-elected president of Bolivia. Again backed by the US, he promised to eliminate all coca growing in the country by the time his term ended in 2002. Coca eradication, which was already ongoing, was stepped up, leading to civil unrest, and drawing the ire of coca-grower Evo Morales. Morales, at the time, was head of a fledgling coca-growers’ federation. Under the straight-talking, no-compromising Morales’ leadership, the country’s various coca-growers’ federations were brought together as a single union and their resistance escalated in proportion to the increased coca eradication. Hundreds of cocaleros died in blood grower-military confrontations during the Banzer years, but their deaths, rather than breaking the coca-growers’ backs, created a stronger movement. Morales was elected to Congress in 1998 and became the national voice for the indigenous in Bolivia, repeatedly calling for an end to the war on coca, reminding people at every opportunity that coca is a sacred plant, not a drug—except in the hands of westerners who abused the plant by making cocaine from it.
When Banzer left office, the struggle between the coca growers and the Bolivian authorities grew even uglier: Two presidents in three years had to resign, in large because of the continued escalation of civil strife related to coca but extending to what the Bolivian poor see as exploitation of their natural resources by private, and non-Bolivian, corporations. All of which set the stage for Morales election. At campaign stops he frequently noted that his party “represents not only hope for the Bolivian people, but also a nightmare for the government of the United States…. I have no fear in saying—and saying loudly—that we’re not just anti-neoliberal, we’re anti-imperialist in our blood.”
His promises to legalize coca for industrial purposes had, and has the US reeling. His promises to nationalize the country’s oil and gas industries, located mostly in the Santa Cruz region and controlled by the country’s richest families, has Santa Cruz threatening to secede from Bolivia, an idea that has been simmering for years but which might explode should Morales make good on his campaign rhetoric. And with companies like Exxon Mobil having a stake in those industries and in Bolivia’s vast untapped natural gas reserves, the US will be pressured to respond.
Given the above background, the Morales’ victory certainly had its roots in US-imposed programs in Bolivia—as a sort of blowback for all the suffering those programs have caused. The questions that were expected to crop up however—whether Morales would follow through or cave in to US demands in exchange for debt-forgiveness and continued humanitarian aid; whether the US, if Morales did follow through, would engineer a quick coup and so forth—have not yet raised their heads. Instead, Morales, cheered after his election by Chavez, Cuba’s Castro and several other heads-of-state but utterly snubbed by the Bush Administration, is facing strife from unexpected sectors within his own country.
Health workers, teachers and bus drivers are all threatening to strike, while indigenous communities in Bolivia’s southeast recently blockaded roads to call attention to their demand for their region becoming Bolivia’s 10th departmento—state. One Bolivian daily newspaper referred to the strife as Morales “getting a taste of his own medicine of blocades and mobilizations…”
Worse than the threats of strikes however, was a March 31 protest by airline pilots and workers demanding that Morales renationalize the country’s primary airline, Lloys Aereo Boliviano (LAB). During late March, the pilots and others occupied runways in La Paz, the nation’s capital, as well as in airports in Cochabamba and elsewhere. Morales, who just months earlier would have been one of the people organizing the occupation found himself in a position of having to send in the military with tear gas to clear the runways—putting him at odds with his former allies. Morales’ spokesman Alex Contreras explained the situation as one in which the workers had no right to take over the runways as the government had already agreed to consider their demands. Contreras added, the report noted, that some of the demands—such as bus drivers being relieved of having to pay taxes—would not be considered “because we all have responsibilities to attend to.”
The airport strike was the result of a situation put in place by a previous administration. In 1996 LAB—which was till then wholly owned by Bolivia and its citizens—was privatized, and more than half of it was transferred to a Brazilian corporation. The remaining shares remained in a trust in the name of the Bolivian government but managed by foreign institutions. In 2001 a Bolivian named Ernesto Asbun purchased enough shares from the Brazilian corporation to gain control of LAB, but ran it for personal profit and in February of this year LAB’s employees struck the company, demanding back pay and payment of the airline’s debt to it’s pension system, which totaled more than $160 million US.
The Morales government intervened and arrested Asbun on charges of corruption, but on March 28 a Bolivian court declared that the government interference in LAB was illegal. Asbun was released on March 30 on bail of less than $5,000, leading to the March 31 airport blockade, and leading Morales to publicly question how much money the court had been paid to rule in Asbun’s favor.
Morales then suggested that Bolivia create a new airline, this one wholly owned by Bolivia and the Bolivian people, rather than renationalizing LAB and having to take on Asbun’s debts, which he said would be tantamount to “nationalizing corruption.”
Unfortunately, the LAB workers rejected that plan—it would have left their back pay and pensions unpaid—leaving Morales to muse during an April 5 interview with the BBC that “You want to issue a decree to help the poor, the indigenous people, the popular movements, the workers….but there’s another law. Another padlock…..You cant transform things from the [presidential] palace….I feel like a prisoner of the neoliberal laws.”
Fortunately, all is not lost for Morales yet. The LAB strike was called off within days and the government is in dialogue with the strikers to try to develop a plan which will return control of the airline to the people without bankrupting the country. Morales has also put in place a July 12 deadline for nationalizing the nation’s hydrocarbon reserves by July 12 and the country’s parliament has agreed to a referendum to give greater autonomy to Bolivia’s departments—both items the populace see as Morales keeping his campaign promises.
As a result of his handling of the LAB strike—which wasn’t perfect but did end quickly in dialogue rather than blood—as well as the upcoming nationalization of Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves and the referendum, Morales’ support among the people is high. Recent polls indicate that voter support is near 80%, more than 25% higher than the percent by which he won December’s election.
The polls were backed by a recent visit to Bolivia, during which dozens of people were asked their opinion of their new president. While some were reserved, only one had a negative view. The remainder seemed to think that Morales will not only do a good job, he will do a great job. They have immense confidence in him based both on his indigenous blood and his years of selfless service to make their voices heard, despite great risk to himself. Rich and poor alike seemed pleased with his election.
One businessman in La Paz had this to offer. “Some people say the election would prove bad for us. I ask why? We need change and if change means an honest man who cares about the poor and social service, I say why not? He has come in and there have been no major problems from either the wealthy or the poor. He talks honestly, he behaves honestly and as long as he does that, there will be no problem he cannot overcome. He’s a man with a good heart. In a country as rife with political corruption as this one has been, what more could you want?”
SIDEBAR: HISTORY OF COCA IN BOLIVIA
It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of Erythroxylum coca v. coca, the Bolivian coca plant, to the history of Bolivia. From time immemorial, and with pottery celebrating it dating back nearly 5,000 years, the little shrub with the waxy green leaves has been a central focus of the Andean nation’s indigenous religious beliefs, a primary medicine, an integral part of the diet and the lubricating balm of social interactions.
In the religious belief system of the indigenous Quechua and Ayamara of Bolivia (and the Quechua of Peru and Ecuador), coca is used to both supplicate and appreciate Pacha Mama, mother earth. Coca leaves are also used in divination and the shrubs themselves as indicators of coming physical and seasonal events.
As a medicine, coca poultices are used on arthritic joints, burns, bruises; leaves are applied to the temples to alleviate headaches; coca tea eliminates menstrual cramps and stomach aches; quids relieve toothache and bronchial problems. In the West, coca leaf extract—cocaine—has a long history of being used as a local anesthetic in delicate operations involving the eyes, nose and mouth
In the diet, chewed coca leaves eliminate hunger and thirst during long days laboring in high altitude. They are also a source of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates; certain of their enzymes break down the carbohydrates in potatoes to allow the body to extract proteins and other minerals not normally accessible from the tuber.
As a societal lubricant, they are the equivalent of wine in France or Italy; or tea in England: all social events, large and small, begin with an offer of coca leaves.
While coca leaves have always been used industrially in commercial teas and Coca-Cola, the recent move toward industrializing the leaves has seen the advent of coca-leaf toothpaste, shampoo, body lotions, candies, cookies, wine, sports drinks and a host of other products.