Special Report

Coca Coup

A darling of the International Left overthrows democracy in Bolivia.

By 10.24.03

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Last Friday Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada left a letter of resignation on his desk in the presidential palace before he and his family fled the country for Miami via Santa Cruz. It was a disgraceful way for a country to change its leader -- and a tragic day for Bolivian democracy. And it should be seen as "nothing short of a coup d'état."

So says Rene Mariaca, a retired Bolivian judge and, as of last year, my father-in-law. Calling it a coup is not hyperbole: The facts on the ground point to a very real revolutionary process. The seditious uprising of thousands of miners, peasants, union leaders, coca-leaf farmers, and indigenous groups in Bolivia and their take-over of the capital city of La Paz toppled the presidency of U.S.-educated Sánchez de Lozada.

At first, Bolivian protesters simply appeared opposed to the government's plan to export the country's staggering natural gas reserves. Never mind that economists have estimated the country's demand to amount to 5 percent of total reserves over the next few decades; protesters were determined not to sell any of Bolivia's 55 trillion cubic feet of gas to foreigners. But it soon became clear that other, more sinister, ideological forces were at work.

Stirred up by the revolutionary rhetoric of Evo Morales -- advocate for the country's coca-leaf farmers, member of Congress, and darling of the International Left -- protesters rejected the president's concessions and refused to end their occupation of the city. One protester told a reporter, "You can't negotiate with this gringo … Now we want his head."

Morales -- along with Felipe Quispe, another powerful indigenous leader, head of the anti-U.S. MIP political party, and a former member of the Tupac Katari guerrilla army -- speaks for a vulgar strain of populism that rejects global capitalism and demonizes anything that is not native to Bolivia. Morales's followers blend socialist ideas with a promotion of the coca-leaf industry. Quispe's followers, in turn, blend virulent anti-Americanism with a hatred of anyone considered a k'ara (white). Much of the international press coverage last week focused on the plight of the Bolivian people, portraying the protesters as noble combatants in the war against globalization.

"But it wasn't globalization they were fighting," counters Fernando Ascarrunz, a political scientist from La Paz. "Theirs was a blow against democratic governance and the rule of law."

He's not wrong. Although Sánchez de Lozada was elected last year with only 22.5 percent of the vote -- forcing his government into a coalition with other leading political parties -- it was still a legitimate government which worked closely with local civil society, the international community, and the U.S. But perhaps he was doomed from the start; Morales had help from some of the world's most roguish leaders.

Earlier this year, El Universal in Caracas reported that Morales received a personal gift of more than $1 million from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to support Bolivia's indigenous movement. Perhaps this was a reward for offering Chavez his unconditional support during his difficult times in February. In fact, according to press reports from Caracas, back in February, Morales flew in a broad-based coalition of cocaine growers and pressure groups from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru to join in a show of support for Chavez.

The friendship between Morales and Chavez is important. The two are in frequent telephone communication and reports from Venezuela said that during the uprising in Bolivia, Chavez offered step-by-step advice each day.

An agent at a travel agency in La Paz has also confirmed that Morales has flown twice to Libya this year alone, most recently coming back at the end of September. The Bolivian press reported that he was the recipient of a $50,000 prize from Qaddafi, although Morales has denied this.

Members of Colombia's FARC rebels have also been found in Bolivia's coca-growing Chapare region where Morales has his base of support. A Colombian national was arrested recently in possession of instruction manuals on fomenting revolution and staging guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile, several websites proudly display photographs of Morales conducting teach-ins on political subversion.

During a recent radio interview, former Peruvian military officer Major Antauro Humala admitted he had provided equipment and personnel to the uprising that began in El Alto, the city sitting on the edge of La Paz. He also discussed his close links to the MIP and his affinity for the Marxist guerrillas of Brazil's Shining Path.

Morales and his followers did not simply express their opposition to government policies. Like a schoolyard bully, they beat up on the city of La Paz until it cried uncle, causing more than $4 million of damage in the process. For a week, the city was cut off from the rest of the country. Food and water shortages were widespread and the price of bread rocketed 120 percent in two days. Twenty-eight people were detained with explosives and small groups looted and vandalized local businesses, hotels, and private residences.

Lacking adequate public facilities, the city saw its sidewalks, streets and plazas become open sewers with thousands of people relieving themselves. Health officials worried about an outbreak of diseases. European tourists were picked up by officials from their respective embassies and ushered out of the country.

"This will hurt us tremendously," said my father-in-law. During the unrest of last week, he and my brother-in-law were forced to defend their business as a small mob outside tried to enter their historic house. Other parts of the city organized armed neighborhood watch committees.

During this unrest, Sánchez de Lozada repeatedly called for dialogue and non-violence. But the crowds -- fortified by adrenaline, alcohol, and coca leaf -- refused to reason. They would not allow the city to return to normal until the president resigned.

So Sánchez de Lozada -- a man who helped stop hyperinflation during the 1980s, set up a model regulatory system during the '90s, and went to great lengths to broaden political participation throughout his career -- had little choice. He resigned in order to return the peace, and then left, guessing, correctly, that the peace would be only temporary.

There is a lingering a sense of injustice surrounding his forced resignation felt by many of the non rioters. It is difficult to understand why no one -- Bolivians, the U.S., and the international community included -- would defend constitutional principles and democratic governance. Last week's events set a bad precedent for Latin America -- and for Bolivia in particular. Already, Quispe and others have threatened to stage a similar uprising in 90 days if the new president, former vice president Carlos Mesa, does not meet their long list of demands.

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