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October 15, 2003
By LEONIDA ZURITA-VARGAS
COCHABAMBA, Bolivia — There has been rioting in
Bolivia for nearly four weeks now. News reports say that
the riots have been over the construction of a pipeline to
ship natural gas to the United States. That's true, but
there's a deeper anger at work: anger toward the United
States and its war against a traditional Bolivian crop,
You see, because of the American drug problem, we can no
longer grow coca, which was part of our life and our
culture long before the United States was a country. This
is why many of the people protesting in La Paz and other
cities are peasants whose families have cultivated coca for
My tribe, the Quechua, comes from the lowland jungles of
the Chapare in central Bolivia. We are used to chewing coca
leaves every day, much as Americans drink coffee. We
sustained ourselves by growing coca for chewing and for
products like shampoo, medicinal teas and toothpaste. We
did not turn coca into cocaine; the chemicals needed for
that are made in countries like the United States. Bolivia
now allows us to grow a very small amount of coca, but it
is not enough.
I am a cocalera. I owe my life to coca. My father died when
I was 2 and my mother raised six children by growing coca.
I was a farmer myself, growing coca for traditional
purposes. But the United States says it is better for us to
just forget about coca. In the early 1990's, Bolivian
officials distributed American money — $300 to $2,500
per farm — and told us to try yucca and pineapples.
But 60 pineapples earn us only about eight bolivianos
(about $1). And unlike coca, yucca and pineapples are
difficult to carry to the cities to sell, and they spoil.
So many farmers returned to growing coca.
Then in 1998, the Bolivian government announced it would
eradicate coca farms through a military program financed by
the Americans. Soldiers came to the Chapare and destroyed
our coca crops with machetes. School teachers were beaten,
and some houses were burned down.
When I saw that, I couldn't be quiet. I helped to organize
people village by village, and I became leader of a
national association of peasant women. Eventually we were
joined in our protests by other social movements and
unions. We have continued to grow. Evo Morales, the head of
the national coca growers' union, even came in second in
the 2002 presidential election. He got 21 percent of the
vote, while the current president, Gonzalo S�nchez de
Lozada, got 22 percent.
I think Mr. Morales would win today. Bolivians have grown
tired of Mr. S�nchez de Lozada's free-market, pro-United
States policies, which have not lowered our high rate of
unemployment. The president's willingness to build a
pipeline through Chile to export our natural gas to the
United States has made many more people join the
anti-government protests the cocaleros started.
To me, real success in the war on drugs would be to capture
and prosecute the big drug traffickers, and for the United
States to stop its own citizens from using drugs. The war
on the cocaleros has brought Bolivia nothing but poverty
Now tanks surround the presidential palace in La Paz.
Fourteen people died in riots there on Monday alone. Unless
the United States and its allies like Mr. S�nchez de Lozada
stop their war against us, Bolivia will have neither peace
nor a future.
Leonida Zurita-Vargas is secretary general of Bartolina
Sisa, an association of peasant women. This article was
written with Maria Cristina Caballero, a Colombian
journalist and fellow at Harvard's Center for Public