South Eastern Bolivia

Oliver Briscoe

Our departure had been felicitously delayed, though at the time Liam had spent the morning of our return in a mood. Irritated because I did not have my driving licence, all I had brought was a copy of my pass certificate, which I had only received days before leaving England. He asked the exasperated and unanswerable question ‘what were you thinking?’ In truth, not the South America he was describing; a police state with licence checks every ten minutes. I had expected that, apart from crossing borders, we would be left alone. In his tirade, he described camoed, black-booted, kepied soldiers, halting us with the terror of free-reigning martial power. If it had been up to me, I would have forgotten about it and left the next day, but to put a stop to this scene setting, I promised to have my father ship the newly acquired licence, as soon as it arrived in Cornwall. As these things transpire, I was checked once, on the last day of the trip, back in Bolivia, where we gave a customary bribe anyway.

Accepting this postal delay, our days were spent in a most useful manner. In the morning we fixed various tasks in preparation, sending Liam’s people to sort maps from the Military Geographical Institute, and the like. I was happy at his side, watching how prosaic life was lived in this part of Bolivia; his days made hectic with the constant management of people, driving hither and tither.

In one such rush around the banality of midday Santa Cruz, the flowers blooming in a city-wide pattern, we found the time to stop at the gunsmith, whom Liam has known since he was twelve. We then went to a supermarket sized liquor store, which sold alcohol and tobacco without the guilty imposition of health legislation. There were Didion’s famous drink combos; Fernet sellotaped to coca, Stolly to cranberry. The cuban puros were also very cheap; one of the few benefits of socialist fraternity, I imagine. I was incredulous, and the hoarding impulse of a child urged me to stock massively. At first with trepidation, as the shopkeeper unceremoniously handled the Churchills and the Epicures I had pointed out, then with heretical abandon. In my uninhibited folly I spent substantial amounts, following the dogma of comparative pricing, roughly calculating what I was getting compared. One spends to save, but I have learnt with cigars one also gets what one pays for; some were most probably fake. However, I also understand that getting cocaine out of Bolivia is easy, laundering the money not so much. Drug dealers, expecting a loss laundering, buy cars and cigars and other luxuries, selling them back taking a cut for cash in hand.

When I had finished putting away the fistfuls and bundles in my humidor back at the house, I interviewed Liam in his father’s old, book-lined office, on the politics which had so engaged me earlier. Between the gentle flow from his pipe and the stream from my afternoon cigar, we chewed our words in the frowsty air.

Liam, despite the name his Irish father had given him, is a typical cruceño in many regards. His mother’s family are an established local family, and his critical view of Morales is that of the majority in the eastern regions. The counter-point to his criticism is to tar the cruceños as a racist oligarchy–usually the lazy slur used by Morales, and taken up by the press as an easy explanation. Partly true, they would counter that they owe little to Bolivia, not connected by a paved road to La Paz until 1954. Prior to the road, it would take a week to cross east to west, and as such everything in the state of Santa Cruz was started locally, independently from the nascent central Government.   

Gaining independence in 1825, the patchwork country has been in a state of territorial and political flux for most of the XXth century; along long established, ethnic and geographical lines. Since the socialist revolution in 1952, juntas followed coups of various rightwing shades, until, in 1993, Sanchez De Lozada [SdL], popularly know as Goni, was elected President; the first legitimate election Bolivia had known in decades. In the subsequent and also legitimate election, Banzer the former CIA, Plan Condor backed dictator was returned to power, a first in South American politics. He, stepping down in poor health, was succeeded by his Vice-President Jorge Quiroga, until another election could be called. As Liam breezily put it then:

‘I guess what I am trying to understand…’

‘Is how this Andean with no high school, no university education got into power. In 2002, SdL gets re-elected and in 2003 he is gone; a coup d’État. He had to flee the country in a plane. There’s a video of people at the airport trying to get him and he flies off. He has been in exile since. Though Evo has continuously petitioned to have him returned.’

‘A comfortable exile?’

‘Yes, my mother has been to his house I think’ he chuckled, sucking like a goldfish to rekindle the ember of his pipe ‘in Miami. SdL was into privatising the gas resources, the Gas Conflict it was called in 2003, when there were protests against the privatisations. The State was supposed to have majority control of Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos [YPFB]. Things got shady and private companies ended with more ownership. At the same time the country was economically distressed and this leftist populist movement gained popularity, protesting against that privatisation. In October it all culminated in the streets and SdL got the armed forces…you had planes shooting protesters, tanks on the street, a real mess.’

Despite US support and the imposition of martial law, Goni was pressured into presenting his resignation to the Bolivian Congress. Carlos Mesa, the Vice-President, was instated, but his succession and promises did not abate the violence. Facing more widespread unrest, after an initially rejected resignation, Congress finally assented to Mesa’s resignation in 2005.

Meanwhile, rising from what became known as Black October, Evo Morales, the head of the powerful Cocalero union and the 2002 presidential candidate for Movimiento al Socialismo–Instrumento Político por la Soberanía de los Pueblos [MAS] whose political leanings need no translation, called for the re-nationalisation of YPFB. He became the figurehead of the indigenous representation movement, and the voice of the entrenched populist socialism, which has trickled through Bolivia’s political conciseness since the 1950s. Mesa stood down, the President of the Supreme Court became the interim President and called the election. Morales entered the Presidential Palacio Quemado in 2006.

‘He wins outright. By 53.7% which is huge because so many parties run. Before we go too far, we have to look at how he got there. He starts out with his military service at a time of multiple coups, then rises through the ranks of the Cocalero union, representing the coca growers. Still to this day the Cocalero union is one of the strongest and most important in the country.’

‘But not cocaine?’

‘Mmm…they obviously deny it but the leaf from Chapare is too acidic to put in the mouth, pistchar its called or aculicar, and 92% of the coca leaf in Bolivia comes from there. You know an innocent, little ponchoed cholita, do not keep an M16 in her truck. Mostly they make paste; they harvest the leaf, stamp it like you do with grapes, extracting the juice. The paste is sold to Columbia, Peru and Chile where the cocaine is then produced.’

Bolivia, a centre piece in South American geography, is what a Liam’s late father–that Irish pioneer–described as ‘the last frontier’ A  massive territory, mostly uninhabited with some of the world’s great biodiverse resources and largest rainforests; in another particularly arresting charge, the TIPNIS or the ‘lungs of the world’ as Liam tritely tried to impress on me, was destroyed by Morales who approved the building of a road right through it, which conveniently allowed land to plant coca. A point to stress: cocaine destroys the rainforest.

It was following vein that I travelled the country; the last old-fashioned fight; Left against Right, against American intervention, or so Evo Morales made it seem, presenting himself as an indigenous victim of imperialism, instead of an interest in stemming the flow of cocaine. How can one place the blame on the man in charge? It is well known amongst Bolivians what the Cocalero union do. In one of the few legitimate countries where coca is grown, Morales reversed the DEA and his predecessor’s coca eradication programs and expanded the number of hectares allocated to coca farming. Travelling in the summer of 2019, I was there right before the Amazon fires, which also conveniently expanded the land available for coca growth, for colla settlers encouraged to migrate, in the thousands monthly, to the East; at the same time flooding the local electoral register in the camba lowlands. A continuous record of this revealing behaviour and my time spent in conversations like the one above, inclines me to safely make my accusation: in a country which ranks highly for the most coups, the man at the top is the man in control. His socialism and popular appeal comes from bribery and maintaining the narrow interests of the coca growers. In power, Morales concentrated all the infrastructure in Chapare, his Bolivian Rome, with all roads leading to it. He built the biggest airport in Bolivia there, in the middle of the jungle. He also built one of the biggest stadiums in the country and a new port. It was this narrow interest which was later to save him from arrest, when he eventually fled in November of that year. Since his flight, the military are still unable to enter the region, and there has been a noted surge in cocaine exports, with flights leaving daily from the airport there.

For those who want the details of Morales’s coca corrupted presidency, in more depth that this narrative can afford, Liam recommends a book by Carlos Valverde Coca Poder Territorio y Cocaina. This journalist, one of the most informed and fiercely independent in Bolivia, has committed himself to uncovering the corruption in Bolivian politics. His writings forced him into self-imposed, exile under duress from the State, and when he returned to Bolivia, he did so impoverished and unemployable. Silenced by the Government, no news outlet would air him or print him for fear of the ever encroaching media laws. Valverde relied community charity and on his broadcasts through Facebook to raise revenue and continue to expose corruption. This pressure on journalists is a state of affairs in Morales’ Bolivia which, tellingly, was not uncommon; and although what I have written cannot do his work justice, he has informed me greatly in what I set out here.

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