How the fall of Bolivia’s only indigenous president has affected coca farmers

Evo Morales was toppled last month but many in his country are holding out for his return, writes Anatoly Kurmanaev

Tuesday 10 December 2019 15:46
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Evo Morales waves during an event to distinguish him as honorary guest at City Hall in Mexico City
Evo Morales waves during an event to distinguish him as honorary guest at City Hall in Mexico City

The road to Evo Morales’s political stronghold, in the heart of Bolivia’s farming region, is nearly impassable these days.

First, tyres and wooden crates block the way, forcing travellers to stop and negotiate with supporters of Morales, the ousted Bolivian president, who have cut off access to the region. Farther ahead, the road is obstructed by tree trunks and barbed wire, and then by towering mounds of stones and earth.

At each of the nearly 100 barricades along the way, suspicious guards – sometimes several hundred of them – wield sticks and nail boards, turning away anyone without a permit or medical emergency.

Finally, after travelling 100 miles through the seemingly endless debris, the tropical town of Villa Tunari emerges in a lush river valley in the Andean foothills. This is where Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, started and ended his political career – and where he is still treated with almost superhuman reverence.

It’s also where the headquarters of resistance to Bolivia’s new interim government is found.

Thousands of coca farmers – including children – are camped around the town’s strategic river bridge, obstructing Bolivia’s main highway and paralysing its national economy. With no movement of goods, there are food and fuel shortages in major cities.

“Evo Morales is like a father to us,” says Antonietta Ledezi, a coca farmer who travelled 30 miles to Villa Tunari to join the blockade two weeks ago. “If he doesn’t return, there won’t be peace.”

Bolivia is moving towards resolving the vicious political crisis that led to Morales’s resignation from office last month, after 14 years as president. His downfall came after violent protests over a disputed election that he claimed to win, and after he had lost the backing of the military and police.

New elections – in which Morales is barred from running – are planned. But farmers here in Villa Tunari, which I reached on a reporting trip in recent days, are determined to fight on for the return of their exiled leader.

For the 50,000 local coca farming families, the ousting of Morales represents more than the end of a government that gave them a political voice and vast improvements in infrastructure, education and health. It is a threat to the peace that Morales, called Evo by everyone here, brought to this stigmatised and violent region.

A supporter walks in front of graffiti that reads ‘Long live Evo’​ during a protest

A mere mention of Evo can unleash uncontrolled wailing at the barricades. Many remember him personally as a fellow coca farmer who rose to become the president of the confederation of local coca unions, a title he nominally holds to this day.

“He was the only president we have ever seen,” says Gregorio Choque, a coca farmer. “He was in the fields with us.”

Farmers began to converge on Villa Tunari on 10 November, the day Morales announced his resignation from the country’s presidency at the nearby headquarters of the coca confederation, an act that turned this gentrifying tourism hot-spot into a war camp.

The next day, Morales fled the country to seek asylum in Mexico, departing from an airport in the coca region.

Soon after, sprawling assemblies of makeshift tents – hastily constructed out of tree trunks and branches – covered the highway, as groups of farmers took shifts reinforcing the barricades, cooking communal meals or trying to rest on bare asphalt in the sweltering heat.

They competed for status by decorating their sections of the barricades with placards, calling for the resignation of the country’s interim president, Jeanine Anez, and justice for about 30 pro-Morales protesters killed in clashes with security forces.

We don’t recognise this new illegal government. Our objective is to allow Evo to finish out his term. In less than 24 hours, we can mobilise 100,000 farmers

“We don’t recognise this new illegal government,” says Andronico Rodríguez, Morales’s deputy in the local labour movement, who is seen by many here as the former president’s successor. “Our objective is to allow Evo to finish out his term. In less than 24 hours, we can mobilise 100,000 farmers.”

The swift rise of Rodríguez, 30, reflects Morales’s social investments in the region. Rodríguez began attending his local union meetings after school with his mother when he was nine, reading out the meeting minutes to the mostly illiterate members.

Now, he has the unenviable challenge of aligning the coca farmers’ eternal loyalty to Morales with the country’s evolving political landscape. This week, he travelled to La Paz to join negotiations over the country’s looming elections.

The coca farmers’ discipline, self-sufficiency in food and strategic location in the centre of the country gives them an ability to keep up the blockade for months, if their demands are not met, he says.

Many barricades hang effigies of Anez, as well as conservative opposition leaders and former military chief Gen Williams Kaliman, who refused to deploy soldiers to save Morales’s government.

A supporter of Evo walks with a Wiphala flag during a La Paz protest 

The neat, usually flawless, wording of the placards was itself a sign of pride in the huge advances in literacy that Morales brought to the region.

After checking my credentials and luggage on the trip I took to the area, the guards at nearly every barricade on the way to the town insisted that I get out of the car so they could speak with a reporter. They wanted to document their political grievances, another legacy of the self-worth instilled by Morales in the local residents, whom many Bolivians write off as rabble-rousing pawns in the global drug trade.

“They call us drug traffickers, terrorists, vandals who are not worth anything,” says one farmer, Hironimo Tosico, breaking into tears. “I’m a producer of banana, plantain, citruses, watermelons. I’m not a troublemaker. I’m a good citizen.”

Bolivia’s indigenous people have used coca plants for centuries to fight fatigue and hunger, but the plant is also the raw material for cocaine. On coming to power, Morales legalised coca production for traditional use but put in place strict output limits.

They call us drug traffickers, terrorists, vandals who are not worth anything. I’m a producer of banana, plantain, citruses, watermelons. I’m not a troublemaker. I’m a good citizen

Under his rule, coca production in the region of Chapare fell despite a large increase in the farming population and global cocaine demand, according to the UN. Local unions today regulate the planting area to protect prices and prevent excess crops going to cocaine labs.

These policies brought economic stability that allowed farmers to diversify into other crops. They also brought social peace after decades of territorial infighting and repression by the military’s coca eradication squads.

Morales’s party got 90 per cent of the vote in Chapare in the last elections in October. But not everyone here supports the blockade.

The tension is largely generational. Many of the region’s older coca farmers have since invested in shops, small hotels and restaurants in Villa Tunari, becoming the town’s new middle class and helping to convert it into an outdoor tourism hub.

Now, as the blockade grinds into its third week, the town’s shuttered hotels are already looking worn down, with jungle vegetation growing freely around abandoned swimming pools. Empty restaurants are cooking one meal a day with firewood.

Locals without land have also been hit hard. Motel worker Nora Choque last week began walking with her two small children to the closest city, Cochabamba – 100 miles up the mountains – because she had run out of food. “There’s nothing left for us here,” she says, as she trudged through Villa Tunari in the afternoon heat.

The blockade has also swept up unexpected bystanders. Groups of Chinese road builders sat gloomily by their isolated campsites on the blockaded highway. Families of Haitian labour migrants heading on foot to Chile sat stranded in a tollbooth. A lone European backpacker scoured for food amid the barricades near Villa Tunari’s hostel.

The barricades fully come to life at dusk. With a reprieve from the heat, the blocked-off road becomes a bustling human sea. Street sellers appear out of nowhere with steaming pots of giant corn kernels, freeze-dried baby potatoes, yucca and spicy peanut sauce for those with a couple spare dollars. Those less fortunate chew on the coca leaf to beat the hunger.

After dinner, the union members gather for a roll call and a discussion – usually in the local Quechua language – on the day’s political news from La Paz before setting down to rest on the asphalt or bare earth, under skimpy tarps or tree branches.

The silence of the road at night is occasionally broken by the screeching of buses carrying reinforcements to the protest’s frontline, outside Cochabamba.

“It’s tough being here, while our crops rot in the fields,” says Serafino Oliveros, a coca farmer, while perched under a 6ft wet tarp with four union companions. “But we understand that this is a necessary sacrifice so that our children have the same rights we had under Evo.”

© New York Times

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