Without 'father' Evo, Bolivia's indigenous coca farmers feel orphaned

Sacaba (Bolivia) (AFP) –


Driven back by security forces and now leaderless after the departure of ex-president Evo Morales, Bolivian indigenous coca farmers have been left "orphaned" in their fight against the country's right-wing caretaker government.

"He was our father, our father," wails Sonia Pena, 51, at a roadside camp where hundreds of protesters retreated after a violent confrontation with police on November 15 that left nine people dead.

Mostly farmers from Morales' political birthplace in the central coca-growing region of Chapare, the protesters are demanding the resignation of caretaker President Jeanine Anez.

With a copy of the Bible in her hands, the right-wing senator took power after Morales quit on November 10 and fled to Mexico, where he was granted political asylum, after taking refuge in Chapare.

Gathered alongside a blockaded highway connecting Sacaba municipality with Cochabamba, the Andean country's fourth-largest city, none of the protesters show any desire to take up the mantle of leader.

They are being "hunted" by security forces, they tell AFP.

A day after the nine farmers were shot dead, Anez issued a presidential decree granting security forces immunity from prosecution for acts of violence, fueling the farmers' rage.

At least 32 people have been killed in weeks of unrest over Morales, the socialist coca leader who after nearly 14 years as president sought a fourth term in the October 20 ballot.

Morales claimed victory in the vote, but opposition groups said it was rigged. An audit by the Washington-based Organization of American States found irregularities in the results.

Opposition groups, with the support of the urban middle and upper classes outraged by Morales' attempt to extend his reign, took to the streets and forced his resignation.

He fled to Mexico claiming to be a victim of a coup after losing the support of the military and police.

A sense of abandonment now pervades the Chapare coca farmers.

"We feel orphaned," says Virgina Munoz, a 63-year-old retiree.

"We want Evo to return. He gave us back our cultural identity, here we are Quechuas, Aymaras, poor people."

A socially fractured Bolivia took the first step into a future without Morales over the weekend with the annulment of the October 20 vote and the approval of new elections that exclude the former leader.

- Coca loyalty -

Morales arrived in Chapare when he was 21 after a severe drought ruined the countryside in the western region of Oruro, where he was born. He began his union life and rose up the ranks to become the almighty leader of six coca federations.

As a congressman in 1997, he embraced the cause of the Chapare farmers to defend the chewing of coca leaves and other ancestral uses, despite pressure of the United States to eradicate the plantations that are also the raw material for cocaine.

With 57,000 acres Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of the drug after Peru and Colombia.

When in power, Morales approved the increase of territory for legal coca cultivation in Chapare and launched his own anti-drug campaign without the supervision or resources of the United States.

"The coca movement has shown the greatest loyalty to Morales under all circumstances," sociologist Maria Teresa Zegada told AFP.

But "he was the man who took decisions, sometimes capriciously, and strongly focused on himself."

It was his most loyal base that launched the offensive against the interim government with road blocks.

The coca farmers still simmer with anger and humiliation after the police crackdown in Sacaba.

"We lived in peace, in tranquility, but now we feel like we don't have a father," says Sonia Pena, dressed in the traditional multilayered skirt worn by many indigenous women.

The "pollera" skirt and the multicolored indigenous flag called "wiphala" have turned into symbols of rebellion against the abrupt end to Bolivia's first indigenous government.

Under Morales' rule, Bolivia's 36 indigenous groups -- which account for 62 percent of the country's more than 11 million people -- were constitutionally recognized.

The country also reduced extreme poverty from 38 percent to 17 percent, and achieved an average economic growth rate of 4.8 percent.

"Without Evo we are going to get poorer," says Rebeca Fernandez, 32.

"He has given us everything. When he returns we are going to be calm, because now they are killing us Indians."