Bolivia has been shrouded in political turmoil for the past several years following the resignation of Evo Morales in November 2019, and the subsequent power grab by a military-backed right-wing interim government. The country’s most recent presidential elections, in which far-left Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) candidate Luis Arce won 55.1% of the electoral vote, marked a pivotal transition away from many repressive and undemocratic measures implemented by the interim government.
During the de-facto administration’s reign, led by far-right former senator Jeanine Añez, several groups were condemned by a series of conservative policy reforms. Amongst those particularly targeted were the cocaleros (coca growers) of the Yungas and Chapare regions. Consequently, the cocaleros took to the streets and marched for Añez’s resignation after the government stripped them of their cultural, political, and economic agency. Prior to the appointment of the interim government, less rigid drug policies promoted by the Morales administration facilitated important collaboration between cocaleros and the Bolivian government. Therefore, the victory of the new far-left administration, whose party has traditionally been an ardent advocate for the cocalero communities, has instilled hope that a return to more inclusive drug policies will help promote overall political stability in Bolivia.
The Complicated History Of The Bolivian “Narco-State”
Coca is one of Bolivia’s most cultivated plants and has long been a staple crop in its economy and culture. However, this ancient history is complicated by the fact that the coca leaf is the main element of the illicit drug, cocaine.
Since the genesis of the U.S.-led War on Drugs, Bolivia has been one of many Latin American countries deemed as a “narco-state” and subsequently demonized for its role in the international drug trade — specifically cocaine trafficking. A ‘narco-state‘ is a term that describes a legitimate government that becomes embedded, politically and economically, in the illegal drug trade. As of the late 1970s, multiple Bolivian administrations, ranging from authoritarian junta governments to democratically elected leaders, succumbed to the pressures of the War on Drugs and subsequently undertook scorched-earth policies against areas of coca-production. As a result, thousands of acres of cultivated land were destroyed.
The problem with such initiatives was that they did little to curb the profits of rapidly expanding cartels, who had the resources to change their producers and trafficking routes if need be. Instead, the domestic battle against coca production in Bolivia primarily devastated low-income communities in rural regions. Many cocaleros and campesinos (tenant farmers) relied on the local agricultural economy for their livelihoods and were severely impacted by the war that the government claimed to be waging solely against illicit drug-trafficking.
Policy Reforms During The Morales Years
The 2005 electoral victory of Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, Evo Morales, was a monumental turning point for the country’s rural cocalero population. As a former leader of the local coca-growers’ union in his native Chapare region, Morales utilized the MAS presidential platform to transform Bolivia’s domestic drug control policy. His administration decriminalized local communities’ participation and emphasized respect for traditional coca farming practices.
In response, foreign agencies such as the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) claimed that relaxing penalties on coca production in Bolivia would fuel the violent and ever-expanding narcotics trade in Latin America. Ironically, the U.S. hyper-criminalization of illicit drugs and the demonization of Latin America for its participation in the drug-trade has itself led to an explosion of violence. Meanwhile, though a portion of the coca produced under Morales’s reforms would in some form become involved with the cartels, overall drug-trade-related violence in Bolivia dropped significantly due to the decriminalization of coca production.
Morales’ connection to the prominent coca-producing regions informed agricultural policies that respected and represented local indigenous practices. For instance, MAS policies permitted cocaleros to harvest small amounts of coca for domestic consumption. Such changes supported the marketplace economies of rural communities that cultivated the coca plant for natural health remedies and household products. Additionally, cocaleros were each allotted a 1,600 square meter of land, known as a cato, to ensure compliance with coca cultivation guidelines. They were also required to biometrically register with their local unions as a safeguard against over-production for illicit means.
In some regards, these reforms helped subvert the U.S.-funded anti-drug model that had been prominent in Bolivia and throughout Latin America for decades. By proving the potential benefits of drug control strategies centered around community engagement and cultural respect, Morales and MAS foreshadowed many conversations around the advantages of decriminalization that countries such as Mexico are now engaging in.
An Abrupt Right-Wing Takeover
Despite the benefits of several reforms implemented under the Morales administration, the former leader was ousted from the presidential office in the aftermath of Bolivia’s 2019 elections, following claims that Morales manipulated the election to maintain his grip on power. The state military subsequently appointed the interim Añez administration, which fueled significant violence against journalists and protestors with a decree of military impunity. The situation for cocaleros in Bolivia also quickly became precarious under the new de-facto government.
Shortly after taking power, the Añez administration promoted a new 5-year drug control strategy, known as “Bolivia: Libre de Drogas” (Bolivia: Free From Drugs). The initiative was reminiscent of pre-Morales strategies of eradication, with a strong focus on reducing coca production and curbing the distribution of its lucrative byproduct, cocaine. The government claimed that these new policies respected cultural diversity, protected vulnerable populations, and mitigated the international drug trade’s violence and human rights offenses. In reality, these hyper-militarized initiatives increased violence against vulnerable populations, especially indigenous communities.
A core facet of the Añez administrations’ drug control policy was an integrated national and local policing model. New squads of state security forces were technically formed to provide assistance to local police in driving out “foreign threats” and monitoring compliance with the new regulations. Far from the narrative of violent “narco-terrorists” that the administration claimed to be clamping down on, these security forces mostly targeted local cocalero communities. Many individuals within these communities lived in constant fear of military brutality, with local and human rights organizations reporting severe cases of property destruction, beatings, and rape.
MAS Re-Election And Bolivia’s Future
Much to the relief of millions of Bolivians, the electoral victory of Luis Arce in the October 2020 elections decisively turned the tables, propelling the socialist MAS government back into power. This victory, along with the peaceful transfer of power from the Añez interim administration, has for many, restored faith in Bolivia’s democratic systems of governance after a particularly turbulent period. Arce’s triumph has also given hope and agency back to cocaleros, who will no longer have to face constant demonization and targeting from the government and security forces.
Although the end of Evo Morales’ time in office was marked with controversy, his administrations’ drug control policies demonstrated synergy with cultural practices, local cocalero economies, and reasonable production limitations. Even as President Arce has strategically distanced himself from his predecessor, many of these same left-wing reforms may prove vital in unifying the country after an extremely violent year under the interim administration. Given the infancy of Arce’s presidency, the effects of his proposed cohesive drug policies on contemporary Bolivian society remain to be seen. But for now, they send an important message: that the Bolivian government is once again for the people, not against them.