How it began
Between 1981 – when the Morales family arrived in El Chapare – and 1988, coca prices soared, resulting in a seven-fold boom in the population from 40,000 to 215,000. Even though short-lived in office (three months), the Argentinian-supported dictator, General Luis García Meza, helped streamline coca by designating government officials dedicated to cocaine trafficking. Included in this group was the infamous Ariel Coca, who was caught with a small plane loaded with cocaine. Unlike other crops, coca can be cultivated year-round (up to four time per year) and 100 pounds of coca leaves (one load) yields a price equivalent to 15,000 oranges.
1981 also marked a pivotal event in Evo’s political involvement. Drunk soldiers beat then burned alive a campesino who refused to incriminate himself as a drug trafficker. Not long after, Evo became involved in “the Juvenile Center,” a group of young subsistence farmers wary of threats by the outside world.
Understanding some basics of Bolivian politics in the 80s is crucial to understanding the world in which Evo Morales formed his positions. Following Meza, Hernán Siles Suazo of the left-wing Democratic Popular Union (UDP) started democratization of Bolivia, but also unleashed an economic crisis in which hyperinflation rose to 8,767% by 1985. Bolivians, such as Carolina’s grandfather, Hugo Añez, recall these terrible years of needing suitcases full of money to make every day purchases. In less than three years, Suazo successfully ripped through seven cabinets and 80 ministers, but still failed to control the economic disaster. Subsequently, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) introduced Supreme Decree 21.060 in August 1985 with US-backing. This neoliberal policy led to government reduction, liberalization of the economy, and entrance of foreign competitors (later leading to privatization of state companies). With this decree, the brakes were successfully applied to the racing hyperinflation, but unemployment skyrocketed to 25%. Miners, historically the head of social struggles in Bolivia since the 1952 revolution, were hardest hit by this shift: 23,000 state-employed miners lost their jobs. Many packed up their belongings and moved east to a land of promised prosperity: El Chapare, the home of coca.
All the while, the US escalated its fight against drug trafficking. The spirit of this crusade is best captured by President George H. W. Bush’s explanation of the drug war strategy: “The logic is simple. The fastest and cheapest way to eradicate narcotic trafficking is at its source…We need to do away with the plantations where they grow and eliminate the laboratories.” In the late 1980s, US citizens snorted $20 billion worth of cocaine; by 1992, 72% of US foreign aid was tied to the war on drugs.
Anti-American sentiment spread like wildfire on a windy day when Law 1008 passed in 1987, with Washington’s thumbprint. The law categorized agricultural regions as “legal” or “illegal” zones for coca cultivation, based on quantified production already taking place. El Chapare was marked a “surplus zone,” and therefore cocaleros were required to supplement their fields with an alternate crop or eradicate coca all together (with a $2,500/acre incentive). Driven by aspirations for national sovereignty, their ancestral ties to the coca leaf, and a survivor’s instinct to defend their most profitable crop, cocaleros in El Chapare learned to hate the USA like a Hutu hates a Tutsi. Their cry became, “Causachun coa!~ Wañuchun yanquis! (Long live coca! Death to the Yankees!).”
Filemón Escobar, a ex-miner and well-known coca supporter, trained Evo in his pro-Trotsky political and ideological thought, along with hundreds of other campesino leaders. He would lecture, “The coca leaf has the same value to us as does the host for Catholics. It is our relationship to the Pachamama (mother earth).” In an interview, Escobar recalls how Evo “wanted to stick it to gringos,” and how he “wasn’t interested in elections,” but rather in developing a guerrilla group in El Chapare. Evo never materialized his thoughts of an armed uprising, but instead became an effective union organizer.
The USA launched another great anti-cocaine offensive in 1993 with the passage of Decree 21.060 with the support of then President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. “The war should be against the hive (cocaleros), not the bees,” US drug czar, Lee Brown, said.
El Cocalero, El Presidente
Evo has always denounced downstream responsibility for coca’s inevitable use for cocaine:
“We produce our coca, we bring it to the main markets, we sell it and that’s where our responsibility ends,” he said to journalist Martín Caparrós in a 1991 interview. And, on a September 7, 1993 debate with the minister of government, Evo’s response to the fact that 66% of coca from El Chapare was destined for narcotics trafficking was: “Say I give you all of the coca in El Chapare, do you think that’s going to eliminate the market in the United States? If we finish with coca in El Chapare, the illegal problem will move into Los Yungas and later we’ll say that ninety percent of the coca of Los Yungas goes to drug-trafficking. El Chapare is run by the DEA and the American Embassy.” Thus, he continued his deviance of American-led cocaine-eradication policies by swearing the following after passage of Decree 21.060: “If the government doesn’t lift the forced eradication, all sixty thousand of us producers are going to go into hiding to confront it.”
Essentially, Evo’s political paradigm was birthed in the school of campesino unionism, where politics = marches + rallies (public demonstrations, confrontations, and eventually negotiations). When he won his first seat in Congress in July 1988, he frequently repeated his new mantra, “to be honest and direct with my constituents and at the front of all marches and rallies.” And, his politics have always centered around his jewel: coca.
From a pro-coca, anti-US speech in the small town of Irupana:
“I’m getting a little jealous. With this many people, you all are going to beat El Chapare. One of my compañeros here just said to me, ‘We’ve fought together’ and started to cry. And she’s right about that. Sometimes it was you all who started the marches. And other times we started them. Coca awoke this political instrument. Cocaine continues to be a problem for the United States, not for us. And coca continues to be a pretext for subjugating us. In Iraq, they went in for oil. Here, for coca. Industrialized coca, at first, isn’t going to make us money, but we have to have patience. We’ve made shampoo with coca. My hair felt a little strange, but my housemate told me that it can keep one’s hair from falling out [laughter]. She set off to get some coca shampoo, and I went with her [more laughter]. She’s not my girlfriend: I’m still single. I’m just campaigning a little. We need to ration coca crops [some whistles]. When production is regulated, the product costs more. My recommendation is not an imposition. The union must ration per family and per person.”
Watch: “Coca sí, cocaina no” – A video about Evo, the coca leaf, cocaine, and foreign political opinions
Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia by Martín Sivak