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LAS AMERICAS Pipe Dreams a la Boliviana BY GABRIELA BOCAGRANDE I j atin Americans with vivid visual tendencies and long memories claim that the Spanish Empire extracted enough precious metal from the Cerro Rico \(or outside Potosi, Bolivia, to build a bridge of silver from South America to Europe. Fantastic fortunes were made, produced by miners whose life expectancies were notoriously short. Topside sat the mansions and churches of the colonial Ken Lay-types, while down below enslaved Indians scraped away miserably at the ore. Since the 1500s, Bolivia has traversed repeated cycles of resource pillage of this sort, during which the country has been unilaterally relieved of its natural endowments of silver, rubber, and tin. During the 19th century, after the best stuff had already been stolen, imaginative British bondholders in search of alternative energy sources made off with the country’s most promising deposits of bat shit. The final blow came when the government of Chile rudely helped itself to Bolivia’s Pacific coast. Each ransacking was accompanied by assurances that all ‘development’ activities were designed to benefit the population with exposure tovariouslyhard work, discipline, entrepreneurialism, competition, and Christianity. Unhappily, the population was actually exposed to smallpox, slavery, genocide, misery, and destitution. For 500 years, this has not really changed much, although the locals have been more than patient. Their endurance appeared to have run out unexpectedly in October 2003, after a consortium of carpetbaggers, corrupt politicos, and con men dreamed up a singularly ill-advised plan to enrich themselves, once again at the expense of Indians, peasants, labor unions, and everyone else in the way. This scheme involved the customarily grandiose pretensions of international capital: Suck Bolivia’s extensive natural gas reserves out of the earth, pipe them across hundreds of miles to the Chilean coast for liquification and export to the United States. It seemed like a good idea, except that your everyday Bolivian has been harboring a few smoldering resentments where both of these particular American neighbors are concerned. First, Chile remains extremely unpopular in Bolivia, ever since the Since the 1500s, Bolivia has traversed repeated cycles of resource pillage. theft of the Pacific Ocean in 1879. Secondly, the United States itself is high on the bat shit list in Bolivia because it funds the coca eradication program that has impoverished the thousands of small farmers who raise the crop. The growing movement of cocaleros is a key element in the October uprising. It is also an expression of the deepening disgust felt by an increasingly organized majority in Bolivia for the unholy alliance between President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, the International Monetary Fund, and the United States government. In January and February of this year, the cocaleros joined forces with the Confederation of Bolivian ing policies perpetrated by the U.S., the IMF, and “Goni”: the coca eradication program and a regressive IMF-imposed salary tax. Together, the two programs were like an economic hammer-andanvil operation directed at those few remaining farmers and workers lucky enough to have land or full-time work. The coca eradication policy wipes out the livelihoods of small farmers, who have grown coca for centuries and chew it in order to cope with altitude sickness, hunger, and cold. The last few decades of lucrative coca export opportunities have been merely a blip on the historical screen of the cocaleros. Nevertheless, in an effort to establish a stable and inviting business environment for foreign capital, the forces of free trade and resource rip-off have systematically poisoned hundreds of thousands of Bolivian hectares, all the while blathering on vaguely about alternative crops for the dispossessed, such as pineapples or yucca. But somehow, the pineapple/yucca cultivation plan has never really taken off out there in the hinterland: The markets are not established, transport is non-existent, and prices are low becauseface itwe already have all the pineapples and yucca we need. When was the last time, for example, that your upside-down cake was short a pineapple? When was the last time you experienced a sharp spike in the price of tubers produced by a yucca shortage? Never, that’s when. As a result of the U.S.-backed plague of defoliants, the enmity of the cocaleros is hard to overestimate: They nearly elected Evo Morales, one of their own, in the 2002 elections. Although Morales had virtually no corporate funding and, in the beginning, little organization, he had a lot of backing and he attracted 21 percent of the vote nationally. The recently deposed President Goni, with backing from the United States and all the money in the world, got 22 percent. After his precarious election, Goni’s 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/7/03