"Look, I think we have to be practical," a Bolivian professional woman recalled an old Army friend telling her not long ago. "It's a new moral code. Tin mining produces little and destroys the lives of Bolivian miners. Cocaine makes a great deal of money and destroys gringos. What do we care?"
Imagine a land mass the size of Texas where the terrain is low jungle, then wind-chilled plain, and mountains so high that the stranger wakes in the night needing oxygen to dull the head pain. It is inhabited mostly by a people who never fully adopted either the language or the culture of their conquerors and speak to each other still in Quechua or Aymara, languages the Spaniards encountered 400 years ago.
Bolivia lost its ocean access and its potentially lucrative nitrate fields in a 19th century war against Chile. It lost a huge chunk of territory and 60,000 men in a 20th century war against Paraguay. Its richest natural resource remained for 30 years in the essentially private domain of three families, the "tin barons." By the time the mines were expropriated in 1952, they were using the most expensive production methods to mine a resource bringing prices that rose and fell with an unpredictable world market.
This is the poorest country in South America, and its adults are not expected to live past the age of 50. Its fragmented political history includes only 30 years of universal suffrage and repeated coups by an impatient military -- propped up during the years by the United States, Brazil and Argentina, as each took an interest in Bolivia's mines and strategic location on the borders of five countries.
The military traditionally has been one of the only routes to power and prestige, so that as one Bolivian historian said, "between the military oligarchy and the tin oligarchy, there was nobody left here to make up a middle class."
But Bolivia today, five months after its 189th coup, is suddenly confronted with an apparently insatiable world demand for a vegetable product that flourishes there. It has no political solidity, its streets are silent and dangerous at the 11 p.m. curfew, a massive foreign debt keeps it teetering on bankruptcy and its fastest-growing business -- a behemoth compared to all the others -- is the illegal production and export of paste for cocaine.
In the last two years, according to just completed data by Bolivian and foreign drug specialists, the Bolivian cocaine trade has nearly tripled. Its capital is the warm southeastern lowland around Santa Cruz, where coca, legal in the leaf form, is hauled by the truckful to be converted to the illegal paste. Most of that will end up in the United States as cocaine.
"Cocadollars" is the common word for the money made in that trade. In Santa Cruz alone, where the three branches of what is referred to as the Bolivian "cocaine mafia" are headquartered, cocadollars are said to have helped pave streets, build new homes for those linked to the drug trade and purchase imported contraband automobiles -- about 18,000 of them, by a local newspaper's estimate. The new data estimates that Bolivia's cocaine trade will produce $1.6 billion this year. That is almost twice the value of all legal exports.
The market price for coca leaves reportedly has risen from $850 per metric ton to $15,000 in less than a year. Miners. who for generations have chewed the leaves to numb hunger and pain while they work in the mines, are protesting that they can no longer afford to buy coca.
The talk of foreign observers and opponents of the current military government is the attitude of that government toward the cocaine trade. Almost since the day of the coup, officials have been fighting off charges that it was at least partially planned and financed by cocaine traffickers.
"The lid is off," said one drug specialist. U.S. aid for narcotics control, which has totaled $9 million here since 1972, was curtailed after State Department officials publicly accused the new government of collaboration with cocaine dealers.
"Rational analysis of the background and composition of the present Bolivian government," one U.S. official testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee in September, "suggested that to seek to continue any government-related [drug enforcement] programs would be totally unrealistic."
That kind of talk so infuriated the government that Interior Minister Luis Arce Gomez recently completed a two-day visit to the United States, accompanied by an armed delegation, to try to clear Bolivia's name.
Arce Gomez, whose ministry controls licenses for the coca leaf truckers and who reportedly owns a fleet of light aircraft, said before leaving Bolivia that in the United States he would "speak to a group of lawyers to see what action we are going to take against the newspapers and magazines that have involved us in the drug trade."
In the course of his visit, Arce suggested that the United States buy up Bolivia's coca crop, and said international communism had motivated all those who have linked him with the drug trade.
There is more at stake than besmirched honor. Aside from the "trickle-down" effects Bolivia's flourishing cocaine trade appears to be having on Santa Cruz's housing and contraband businesses, the bulk of the profits is believed to be invested in international real estate and offshore numbered bank accounts. The legitimate sector of Bolivia's economy is in deep trouble.
The price of tin, its chief legal export, drops daily on the world market. With a population of under 6 million, the nation has a $3.5 billion foreign debt. An international banking consortium is demanding payment of $170 million in short-term debt. The only international private funding since the coup has been a loan from Argentina, much of it for the purchase of Argentine wheat.
The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have hold off, at least partly to see whether the government will unveil an economic package originally scheduled for early November. It was a dramatic plan, according to those familiar with it: Wheat subsidies were to end, possibly doubling the price of wheat-based food staples for the poor, the prices of gas and oil were to be raised by 60 percent, state transportation and electric services were to be raised by 40 percent, and there was to be no increase in salaries to compensate for the higher cost of food.
The closer the government got to the scheduled announcement date, the faster counter-coup rumors flew, and there has still been no economic announcement. Government officials say they are studying the "social effects" the program is likely to have.
If the economic package is to come, diplomatic sources say, Bolivians are likely to know in advance, because the 11 p.m. curfew will be moved up two hours.