Cocaína No, Coca Sí

Cocaine cuts close to the bone here in New Mexico. An addict lives to either side of me. To the south, it’s the angry Chicano whose proclivities run to shooting off guns and starting fires that require three fire departments to quell;  to the north,  it’s the waif of a blonde whose high school graduation may have been awaited with joy — but,  in the presence of the white temptation,  deteriorated into confusion,  loss of a job,  and ill health.

So when Tom Hayden suggested I travel to Bolivia for el transmito del mando of the coca farmer Evo Morales to the presidency of that country – one of the top Latin American growers of the plant used in the production of the narcotic cocaína — I slapped a few Levi shirts into my maletita and waited for the departure date.

To the average U.S. observer,  Morales’ campaign platform might have appeared odd,  even contradictory. It included halting sales of the coca leaf to the burgeoning narco business,  which anyone who has seen the This-Is-Your-Brain-On-Drugs TV ads could go for. But it also called for stopping U.S.-backed eradication of coca fields and the legitimization of the plant as the ancient sacred herb that it is.

Tom’s idea was in line with Morales’ thinking. He wanted us to gather information and make contacts in Bolivia so that,  upon return,  we might launch a campaign to legalize sale of coca inside the U.S. Mi compañero de viaje was jazzed by the potential medical application of the herb for heart and diabetes patients.

He himself,  survivor of a heart attack,  had experienced its remarkable effects when,  with leaves chocked into his cheek on a previous visit,  his normal huffing-and-puffing had been miraculously replaced by an energetic mounting of the cobblestone streets of La Paz. His strategy was to put the herb through FDA hoops and make it a legal prescription drug for medical distribution.

I began to contemplate possible economic effects. The narcotraficantes are grossly in evidence in Colombia,  Perú,  Ecuador,  and Bolivia  — where by military might and political manipulation they control the Andes’ #1 commodity product: la coca,  which is processed in laboratories for international distribution as cocaine. In some instances,  the cartels kidnap farmers,  sequestering them in wooden cages at night,  forcing them to shout Wal-Mart-style pep chants and work the fields in double shifts. In others,  village growers simply find it more remunerative to sell coca to drug dealers than to market pineapples at the local mercado. In still others,  the crops are taxed,  either by narcotraficantes themselves or by political groups amassing resources for military campaigns.

A thought — which popped into my head not full-blown and solid as,  let’s face it, narcos are not ones to put up with competition — was that a legitimate,  collective-run venue for growers could provide uninterrupted income while upsetting the base of the illegal drug trade,  a task that has thus far eluded every local,  governmental,  and international effort ever attempted.

Sacred plant

La coca is the sacred plant of Bolivia,  with 82 different species grown in the tropical Chapare,  in the forests of Santa Cruz,  and on the altiplano of the Yungas de La Paz.

What does that mean: "sacred plant"? It means the people value it above all else;  that its existence,  like that of spirit,  infuses every facet of life. When a couple marries,  they plant a coca field;  as their children grow,  so the field matures,  providing for all;  when the children leave home,  the field has passed its peak,  producing now only for two. Coca is the gift that binds all social relations. It is the healer of humankind’s ills. It is used to give thanks,  to predict fortunes,  to celebrate the season,  to solidify the community,  to experience the primeval space-time continuum of the gods.

And it has remarkable nutritional and medicinal attributes. Chocked full of protein,  fiber,  vitamins,  and minerals,  it is reported to relax,  invigorate,  and give strength. Hundreds of biological and medical studies propose it can aid digestion,  combat arthritis,  balance blood sugar,  impede fungal and bacterial growth,  heal ulcers,  boost the immune system,  augment oxygenation,  act as a sedative — and,  of particular interest to Tom,  facilitate circulation and restore the cardiac muscle.

Coke. Snow. Flake. Blow. Tornado.

Cocaine is a whole other story. Extracted as a lone alkaloid from a potpourri of nutrients in the coca plant,  then processed with forty-some chemicals including ether,  acetone,  and methyl ketone — it is a deadly drug. Snorted,  injected,  or smoked,  the white powder  jacks the nervous system into a frenzy of extreme excitement,  just as it interrupts the passage of nerve impulses,  causing inhibition of pain sensations and failure of judgment.

And it is horrifically addictive. When laboratory rats are offered an endless supply of heroin,  they ingest it constantly,  but also take time to eat and sleep;  when rats are given an unending cache of cocaine,  they do nothing but consume it. Complications can include heart attacks,  respiratory failure,  strokes,  seizures,  and paranoid psychosis. According to the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health,  over 48 million Americans have used cocaine. Read:  one in six. That’s a lot of people. The business is bigger than that of McDonald’s,  Microsoft, and Kellogg’s rolled into one:  $92 billion a year.

It can be no surprise that the kind of people running it are of the no-bullshit variety,  the kind with personal zoological gardens,  personal body guards,  personal hit men,  personal telecommunications systems,  and personal techno-armies. To go up against them,  the primary cocaine-consuming nation in the world —  the U.S. — has likewise amassed techno-armies. Fighter jets. Black Hawk helicopters. Ground-to-ground missiles. Rocket launchers.

Since 2000 the "war on drugs" has laid out $7.5 billion to the Andes region,  ostensibly to eradicate cartel-grown coca and opium fields. But,  in fact,  wanton spraying of toxic chemicals onto innocent coca farmers,  their families,  and the fields producing their daily food has predominated — while the bulk of the money has been funneled toward military actions aimed at securing Latin America’s oil,  natural gas,  water,  gold,  etc.,  for unfettered corporate exploitation.

Talking revolution

People in Bolivia talk politics. Well,  truth be told,  they talk revolution. This is a place where both classical and current colonization have taken brutish forms:  genocide,  slavery,  resource robbery,  military juntas — and almost every family has a member who was arrested,  tortured,  and/or desaparecido. Bolivia has endured 192 changes of government in 178 years of existence as a republic,  100 of them by revolution.

Think what this means:  you have to keep up.

The waiter at my hotel in La Paz,  a supporter of Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS),  brightens at the thought I have come all this way for the inauguration — and our mutual enthusiasm for conversation,  as he serves mangos and trucha a lo macho,  revolves around la liberación of his country.

A 20-year-old cab driver tells me that Evo is like a loaf of bread fresh from the oven:  we’ll find out how he tastes. In a village west of Cochabamba,  a doctor lays out the shape of the new Latin America. Venezuela’s president is socialist Hugo Chavez. Chile has just elected former torture-victim and single-mother Michelle Bachelet. Left-of-center Néstor Kirchner heads Argentina,  while Luiz "Lulu" de Silva is president of Brazil. Uruguay’s Tabaré Vazquez’s initial act is to open diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Inauguration day

22 Enero. Plaza de los Héroes.

Thousands of people are overflowing the heart of La Paz where large gatherings have historically taken the form of pitched battles against the military. This is something different. The official state inauguration is taking place several blocks away in the Congress. The presidents of Venezuela,  Chile,  Colombia,  Argentina,  Panama,  Peru,  Brazil,  and Paraguay are in attendance,  and out here uncountable crowds are awaiting the arrival of their new leaders.

Smiling Aymara women in felt bowler hats. The street kids rehabilitated by El Teatro Trono atop stilts made of scrapwood,  gyrating to the thunder of homemade drums. Quecha women in their flat-topped straw monteras. Miss Bolivia Universo. Bigger-than-life flying eagle puppets. Dance groups in feather head dresses. Bolivia’s glorious trícolor,  impressive blue MAS banners,  the emblematic multi-colored wiphala flags — all flapping like foam caps atop a sea of humanity.

Rather than one mass leaning,  lunging,  looking toward one stage as would be done in the United States,  the crowd organizes itself into circles resembling village clans. I am jammed into one,  and an infant wrapped in a shawl grasps to hold my finger. An Aymara woman admires the artistry of the poncho I am wearing with a gold-toothed grin. To the emphatic toots of zampoña music,  a cholito in red helmet hat dances with an African American girl in dredlocks,  a willowy blond boy spins a laughing indígena. A serpent of miners in hardhats presses through,  and every now and again the crowd lets roar a mass chant:  "!EVO! !EVO! !EVO!"

It is 5 o’clock. Many have been waiting for Morales’ appearance for six hours. Suddenly the distinguished Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano steps onto the stage and,  with his gravely poetic voice,  announces that Evo’s presidency marks the death of "la dictadura del miedo" (the dictatorship of fear).

Next comes the handsome vicepresidente Álvaro García Linera. At last Evo steps to the microphone. The crowd stills. The coca farmer now festooned in the national medallion of liberator Simón Bolívar pledges obedience to the people and unprecedented striving for justice. The sky opens to its seasonal downpour,  and thousands of people are drenched in hope.

Tears of Evo

One memorable thing about Morales is that,  on both occasions of receiving his mandate — the spiritual transmission at the sacred site Tiwanaku,  for which he prepared with rituals of purification,  and the official inauguration in Congress — he burst into tears.

The 46-year-old Evo Morales Aima was born Aymara and poor in the department of Oruro. During a drought in 1983,  his family was forced to move to the tropical Chapare to survive by coca farming. Before making his way through the ranks of local unions there,  finally emerging as the president of El Comité de Coordinación de las Seis Federaciones,  he had worked as a baker,  a brick layer,  a farmworker,  a trumpet player,  and a soldier. In the mid-1990s he rose to lead MAS and,  along the way,  harshly deride the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas as "an agreement to legalize the colonization of the Americas";  be thrown in jail for standing up for the cocaleros;  and proclaim "Cocaína no,  coca sí"(Cocaine no,  coca yes) — with emphasis on solving the cocaine problem not at the campesino end,  but at the consumption end.

Morales is known for two distinguishing characteristics:  1) his Beatle-like,  bowl-cut hairdo (read:  he’s an indígena through and through);  and 2) the ratty old red-and-blue alpaca sweater he would not take off during his world tour to meet the leaders of China,  Spain,  and France (read: he doesn’t compromise).

Because Morales is romantically unattached — and now asserts that,  by vote of the people,  he is married to Bolivia — la Primera Dama is his sister,  Esther Morales Aima. She is a 54-year-old vegetable vendor.

Morales’ politics are touted to be an unfolding of socialista and indígena. The MAS platform has 10 points,  which include the nationalization of resources (read:  profits go to the country,  not to multinational corporations);  decentralization of decision-making back to the pueblos indígenas,  municipalities,  and regions;  eradication of rampant government corruption;  the creation of a national health system — and,  for our purposes,  decriminalization of traditional coca growing;  routing out the narcotraficantes;  and the return of land back to the campesinos who work it.

At Tiwanaku,  in reference to Che Guevara who was executed in Bolivia in 1967 at the hands of the military and the CIA,  Morales proclaims,  "La lucha que dejó Che Guevara,  vamos a cumplir nosotros" (We will finish the fight Che Guevara started).

In the garden of the activists

I arrive in the village of Totorcahua craving a good night’s sleep. I get it on a three-acre piece of permacultured paradise. The German-Bolivian doctor José Carlos Ramirez Voltaire,  veteran of Physicians for Social Responsibility International,  is my host,  and I am sharing the walled gardens of lime,  lemon,  plantain,  comfrey,  carrots,  and nasturtium with Bolivian activist Malena Vida,  Spanish healer Ignacio Ballesteros,  and Quecha gardener Irgidio Torres.

The fact that they are activists working for worldwide legalization — or,  at least,  removal from the United Nations Controlled Substances list —  is sheer synchronicity. What it means is I am privy to almost nonstop discussion on the meaning of coca and the means by which it might overcome the taint it suffers from its unfortunate association with cocaine.

The first guest to a political meeting on coca filters through the plantain leaves to the house around 4 o’clock. He is Guido Capcha whose dedication is finding health care for the villagers in the Chapare. Next comes Gabriel Yawar Nina,  dressed in disheveled khaki jungle gear,  a camera artisan who brings his photo creations of indígenas printed on brown-bag paper. He is accompanied by writer/activist Malena Tuta Larama. Carmen Cárdenas,  along with Grober and Alexia Loredo from Teatro Trono,  arrive toting a suitcase full of colorful puppets. The painter Valentina Campos carries her two-month old in a red and pink shawl. While José,  Ignacio,  and Malena are laying out cheese and cakes,  Appalachian folksinger Ricardo Jack Herrenan picks a tune he has written linking the struggles of coal miners in West Virginia with that of gold and silver miners in Bolivia’s Potosí.

We talk politics. There are as many years of movement sweat under the bouganvilla as there are years since the arrival of Cristobál Colón. We are talking about a possible worldwide campaign to legalize coca. A major theme is la liberación de los pueblos. Another is the holism that is second nature to communities not yet totally wrenched from the land:  coca is not separate from people,  family,  the ancestors,  nutrition,  music,  art,  or spirituality. La coca es sagrada,  as is so often said,  and everyone’s cheeks are bulging with leaves meshed with the characteristic bolus of licorice that glues it all together.

Then Juan Carlos Escalera,  the dedicated agronomist in the corduroy beret,  puts it to me eyeball to eyeball. How can coca be forged into a product separate from origins,  place,  and traditions? Wouldn’t the demand from worldwide consumers transform its historic small-scale village production into technologically based corporate agrobusiness? And wouldn’t such an endeavor signal yet another assault on Bolivia’s waning biodiversity?

Just that morning,  while downing our daily mate de coca,  jam and bread,   José has expounded yet again on the possibilities of coca despenalización,  and a question has niggled its way into my mind. Wait a minute — it flies in like a bird seeking a nest — we’re talking about the creation of …. a global commodity. A beneficent global commodity perhaps,  but a global commodity nonetheless — complete with its potential for wrenching community from tradition,  entry into the wage economy,  devolution to mass transportation and telecommunications technologies,  imposition of economic inequities and individualism,  etc.

I answer Juan Carlos eyeball to eyeball,  relaying my own progression of thought. I begin by describing mi compañero’s desire to legalize coca and put it through FDA standards to make it available to U.S. heart and diabetes patients. I hear a collective gasp of anguish and witness a row of black-haired heads drop into despairing hands.

I move on to describe my conversion to the softer notion of coca sold in U.S. health food stores like yerba mate or chamomile. The same gasp erupts,  the same dropping of heads. Last I tell of the thought that has entered my mind just that morning:  selling coca in mass quantities could signify entry into the global economy with perilous consequences for people,  culture,  and the natural world. There is no gasp and no dropping of heads.

The plant stays

Juan Carlos escorts Jack and me to the farming village of El Paso. Its claim to fame is chicha,  a homemade corn drink akin to moonshine,  and the chicherría is a cavernous adobe barn with chickens and roosters strutting freely among the tables.

We take our first round of chicha from a dried gourd cup,  making sure to offer the first sip to Pachamama who,  in this case,  appears as the earthen floor of the barn. Juan Carlos launches into a lecture on Bolivia’s ecological cosmology. Illustrating his thoughts on a piece of blue-lined paper,  he overlays a ladder-like configuration depicting the four altitude zones over a birds-eye view of the country.

His drawing becomes ever more elaborate,  like a labyrinth,  as he adds seasonal charts revealing farming and festival schedules,  statistics on loss of biological diversity since 1930,  etchings of sun,  land,  and people. We are into our third round of chicha,  a black cow is ruminating at the barn door,  and Juan Carlos and Jack are simultaneously putting away the coca. Juan Carlos’ conclusion is as simple,  and complicated,  as a leaf.

"La planta no sale fuera" (The plant doesn’t leave here), he states. It is dusk. Against the darkening valley splayed out beneath the Cerro  Tunari,  I have clarity. It all comes down to a politic of la soberanía. Respect for other peoples’ self-determination implies that my business stops at the boundary where theirs begins;  it does not extend inside another’s territory,  community,  body,  or psyche.

That understood,  there can only be two possible responses on my part. The first is to take responsibility for what my own government is doing to Bolivia:  to stop the military/political arm of the U.S. war on drugs. In the interest of not imposing a plan that I posit would be useful to me,  my second task becomes respectful communication:  to listen,  learn,  and respond in cooperation.

Needless to say,  the age-old question raises its tangled head. Who is the legitimate spokesperson for la soberanía? What if,  in response to pressures to amass capital that press in on any government in a global economy,  Morales himself negotiates a deal for mass coca production with a multinational pharmaceutical? Or a consortium of health food companies? Or even a group of left-leaning "free trade" collectives? Juan Carlos stares into me with those eyes.

He says nothing,  and I suddenly laugh at my own doubt. "OK. I get it. The origin of sovereignty precedes government and always, always always resides with the people."

I return home to New Mexico — as before,  sandwiched between the vato and the sad blonde whose lives are forever marked by a drug derived from leaves grown somewhere in the Andes,  perhaps in the Bolivian Chapare. It is time:  I too must work to finish the fight that Che Guevara began.


el transmito del mando:  inauguration 

cocaína:  the narcotic cocaine

maletita:  little suitcase

compañero de viaje:  traveling partner 

narcotraficantes:  drug dealers,  cartels 

altiplano:  the high temperate mesa of Bolivia 

desaparecido:  kidnapped,  possibly tortured and killed 

trucha a lo macho:  trout from Lake Titicaca,  served with garlic and onions 

trícolor:  national flag

wiphala:  flag of MAS,  representing all indigenous peoples of Bolivia 

zampoña:  a flute made of reeds strapped together 

cholito:  indigenous man

indígena:  indigenous person

cocaleros:  coca farmers

la Primera Dama:  the First Lady

pueblos indígenas:  indigenous communities 

la liberación de los pueblos:  the freeing of communities from oppression

sagrada:  sacred 

mate de coca:  coca tea

despenalización:  decriminalization 

chicherría:  neighborhood bar

la soberanía:  sovereignty

vato:  homeboy