Pubdate: Tue, 1 Jul 2008
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Copyright: 2008 Foundation for National Progress
Authors: Marco Vernaschi and Patrick Symmes
Note: Photojournalist Marco Vernaschi has spent years chronicling the 
plight of Bolivian miners. Patrick Symmes is a contributing editor 
for Outside, and the author of The Boys From Dolores.


There hasn't yet been a tin or copper war, but there once was a
nitrate war, and in the past decade Bolivia has seen both a water war
and a gas war-the latest struggles over the nation's only real riches,
the lucrative resources granted by God and geology.

In this country nearly twice the size of France, where Amazonian
jungles butt against 12,000-foot plateaus, the winners have always
come from elsewhere.

The Inca royalty of Cuzco (in modern-day Peru) took power from the
local Aymara; the Spanish took gold and silver; the British took tin;
recently, multinationals Bechtel and Suez tried to privatize the water
supplies of Cochabamba and El Alto, while other foreign companies
fought for control of Bolivia's prodigious supply of natural gas;
cartels continue to take the coca and its profits.

Bolivia's losers have always been the same: the disenfranchised
indigenous. With an annual income of just $1,150 per capita, Bolivia
is the poorest country in South America. But it is a deeply organized,
socially coherent poverty, rooted in centuries of survival through
communal politics and labor cooperation. Even today, long columns of
Aymara men can be seen stepping backward through the fields with foot
plows, opening the ground as chanting women follow, seeding potatoes.
And for the first time in history, the piratical outsiders have been
stymied by a homegrown revolution and its thin but consoling power.

It was the gas war of 2003 as well as dissatisfaction with the
American-led war on drugs that led the brown masses to march on La Paz
and usher out the last of Bolivia's white-led, semi-colonial
governments. Real, broad elections summoned for the first time an
indigenous leader, Evo Morales, to the Palacio Quemado, or "burned
palace," so named for being repeatedly torched during the more than
150 ruling-class coup d'etats that have marked Bolivian history.

With its mixture of idealism and limited but sharp violence, this
latest uprising was more like the Ukranian Orange Revolution than the
Castro-style putsch feared by K and Wall streets.

The alpaca-sweater-wearing Evo celebrated his inauguration at the
ancient city of Tiahuanaco, at the ruins of a pre-Columbian site of
sun worship.

In accordance with mass demands for democracy and transparency, his
administration struck a populist tone, signing trade deals with
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, nationalizing foreign-controlled oil and gas
industries, paying students to attend school, and updating the face of
nationalism, evidenced by the endless television programs in which
indigenous people present their grievances and are, for the first time
in Bolivian history, actually heard.

The revolution is by no means perfect. Corruption persists, and Evo
has not hesitated to toss the race card back in the face of the white
elite who exploited it during the last century.

Still, there is no turning back the clock on the rise of a new

But having asserted their power, Bolivia's indigenous people-a clear
majority in a nation of just 9 million, but divided into many language
groups-face the challenge of forging a movement larger than identity

Increasingly the Aymara are fleeing altiplano poverty for the tropical
promise of the lowland coca business, uprooting their ancient way of
life for a risky, marginally profitable role as peons in the
international drug trade.

Urbanized "Indians" are in reality sharply divided between established
cholos, a bowler-hatted business class with longtime roots in La Paz
and other cities, and the ever-swelling ranks of newcomer refugees who
crowd into El Alto and other chaotic, emerging neighborhoods,
scratching out a living as porters, gardeners, and ditchdiggers.
Regionalism is spinning the country apart, pitting the national
government high in La Paz against the economic powerhouse of lowland
Santa Cruz. Fresh, angry slogans in La Paz cry out eliminate private
property, less a practical demand than a warning of the impossible
expectations that await reformers.

Many who remain in the mountains resort to the pittance earned by
mining for gold, silver, and tin. Under Spanish rule, these same mines
cost the lives of millions of indigenous and African laborers.

Thanks to the global boom in metal prices, mines previously considered
exhausted tempt a new generation of boys who descend into impossibly
dark, narrow, unventilated veins of the Andes, chewing coca to
suppress their appetite, fatigue, and fear.

Coca has always been a palliative for Bolivia's poor, but only
recently has the country become central to the global cocaine market.

As Washington squeezed the coca balloon in Colombia, it has bulged out
in southern Bolivia, where production has increased, even as the
United States now pours $66 million a year into interdiction, military
and police training, and dare anti-drug classes for 28,000 Bolivian

America has focused on crop eradication, and efforts to help Bolivians
cultivate replacement crops have mostly failed.

A former coca farmer and coca-union leader who railed against
American-led programs, Evo Morales ran on a Coca Si! Cocaina No! platform.

He keeps a portrait of Che Guevara made entirely from coca leaves on
his office wall and never misses a chance to serve coca tea to
visiting politicians. But the leaf traditionally grown at high
altitude and chewed by indigenous Bolivians has become a Trojan horse
for the broader cultivation of a more bitter, unchewable, low-growing
leaf useful only to narcotraffickers. Washington tabulates successes
like body counts, claiming that in 2007, precisely 3,093 labs and
maceration pits (often little more than plastic-lined ruts where
cocaine paste is mixed) were destroyed, 13.8 metric tons of cocaine
base were seized, and Bolivia's anti-narcotics police carried out
8,269 operations. The real gains are ephemeral.

Armed and trained by the United States, Bolivian commandos chase
low-level producers through Evo's Chapare region; meanwhile major
traffickers sometimes walk out of jail, as pure and cheap cocaine
floods onto world markets.

On a fundamental level, the war on drugs is like all the other
commodities wars Bolivia has endured: Rural peasants take all the
risk-going so far as transporting coca by strapping it to the bodies
of their young children-while outside traffickers take most of the