Posts Tagged ‘Evo Morales’

Peace Camp 2012, and thoughts of Bolivia

June 28, 2012

In 2003, when the Bush administration began the drumbeat for war in Iraq, concerned residents of San Pedro, CA began to hold street corner vigils for peace. Their passion led them to create a nonprofit, San Pedro Neighbors for Peace and Justice, and one of their first projects was to help young people start peace clubs in local high schools as a response and act of resistance to the pervasive military recruiting on-campus.

Every summer, the adult Neighbors take more than a dozen kids for a weeklong camping trip in the Santa Monica mountains. I was so happy when Kirstin Summers got in touch a couple of weeks ago to invite me to camp. Yesterday was my third trip up to the Circle X Ranch to offer a political theatre workshop to the high school and college age participants–some theatre games and exercises, a bit of Theater of the Oppressed, and a chance for them to play around with ideas for Flash Theater skits they can use to take political theater all over town.

I loved the kids’ lively imaginations (and the extra boost to their performances from Kirstin and Neighbor Chris Venn) and it’s always fascinating to find out what issues concern the young people most. This year, they raised LGBT rights–which I might have predicted, based on past workshops; and the evils of the tobacco industry, and whether Bible study clubs should be allowed in public schools–two subjects I had not expected.

During lunch, people wanted to hear about Bolivia and the political situation there. So I babbled on a bit, but only today heard from a friend there. I had written asking about the police strike in Cochabamba and Oruro, two places I had visited in February, as it’s so hard to get reliable info here. From what my friend said, the police are quite justified in asking for a raise as they are paid so little, they can’t support their families (and, I would add, when you don’t pay your cops, you’re just asking for corruption, esp in a country where coca is grown but has tried to avoid being part of the trafficking economy). The difficulty is that any action, any criticism of the Evo Morales government ends up being used by the rightwing that has tried to undermine him and destroy the socialist government ever since he was elected. While I was there, it was clear that many people in the traditional wealthy white elite can’t accept Morales or the new constitution that guarantees equal rights regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, or disability. With President Fernando Lugo just deposed in a bloodless coup in Paraguay, my friend is very nervous about social unrest giving ammunition to the right in Bolivia.

My thoughts are with Bolivia tonight. Paraguay, too, of course, but in Bolivia with much loved friends.

Coca: One More Thing US Drugs Policy Gets Wrong

March 5, 2012

My article today in LA Progressive, the first of my reports from Bolivia.

You can find it in any market or supermarket. Under the brand name Windsor, it comes in boxes that look much like any box of Lipton tea in the US. I drank it in the morning instead of coffee. In the evening, I preferred trimate, the coca leaves mixed with chamomile and anise.

In Bolivia, as in much of the Andes, people understand that coca leaves are not the same as cocaine. The leaves, which are rich in vitamins and minerals, are used for tea, in candies, in flour for baking cakes, as an anaesthetic, and in beverages–as they still are in Coca-Cola, following a process that removes any detectable trace of drug so that only the sugar and nutrition-free caffeine remain as stimulants.

Bolivia’s socialist president, Evo Morales, who took office in 2006, was a coca grower and led the growers’ union. He’s also Aymara, in a country where the indigenous majority has been oppressed and discriminated against for centuries.

His election–like that of Barack Obama here–led to an often racially-based backlash revealing profound social rifts. To many people in the caste that used to run Bolivia, it’s disconcerting to see, just for one example, an indigenous woman take her place as a Cabinet minister wearing traditional garb. Morales has also lost some support among his one-time backers for promoting a new highway through the Tipnis National Park, home to three indigenous groups. But the opposition, encouraged no doubt by the US war on drugs, often uses the coca connection to demonize him. These critics don’t label the president as a socialist, or an Indian. They say, darkly, he’s a cocalero.

Bolivia’s Constitution guarantees equal rights regardless of race, language, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. There’s been backlash here too. While I was in Cochabamba offering my arts-based literacy and social justice workshops, the city lived through a Little Rock moment. Girls enrolled for the first time in the city’s most prestigious, previously all-male, public school and boys and their parents battled with police as they tried (in the end, unsuccessfully) to stop the girls from entering the building.

But coca, coca, I was talking about coca.

In the anti-Evo stronghold of Santa Cruz, coffee does seem to be the drink of choice. In the capital, La Paz, a taxi driver told me that because of Morales, the Mexican drug cartels are now slaughtering people in Bolivia–something I could not verify and does not appear to be true. What is true is that acreage under coca cultivation has expanded and the media warns of disastrous
consequences to Bolivian society if the nation were to become a cocaine producer–something that has not happened yet.

Another truth: coca is a hardy plant and can yield four harvests a year. If non-narcotic coca products could be exported to the US, imagine what a boost it would give the small farmers and the legal economies of Andean South America.

Banning coca. It’s as though a dry county in Texas banned potatoes because you can process them to get vodka. But when I said this to a Bolivian friend, she took offense: “Coca is not a potato. It’s medicine. And it’s sacred.”

I started drinking coca tea to prevent and alleviate high altitude sickness–el soroche–something that coca does more effectively and
without the inconvenient and at times life-threatening side effects of drugs like Diamox, prescribed in the US. Coca soothes the stomach and aids digestion. Not only did I stay healthy but I found I didn’t need coffee to start my day. I love coffee. But I’m an addict. At home in California, my head is foggy and pounding until I get my espresso fix in the morning.

Bolivians are not ignorant of the dangers of addiction or careless about health. While we in the US use tiny print on cigarette warning labels, in Bolivia the message comes through loud and clear, taking up half the space on the pack:
Cada seis minutos muere un fumador. (Every six minutes a smoker dies.)
On the cartons in duty-free airport shops, purchasers are warned in large capital letters in English that smoking can cause

And yes, coca leaves are sacred, as I learned when we offered them up in a ritual to la Pachamama, the divinity of Mother Earth.

Back home, my first cup of coffee in weeks upset my stomach, set my heart to pounding and my hands to shaking. I would still be drinking coca tea, if only I could.