Basic Bolivia

Basic Bolivia
"Welcome to Coca Country" could well be the most fitting name for the Bolivian exhibition hall at the next World's Fair or maybe for some future installation at Six Flags over South America. Admittedly provocative (unless the soft-drink giant underwrites its construction), nevertheless the hall might tell a very different story from the tales of torment so often lived in the fast circles and inner cities of the U.S. and elsewhere.

Not to worry, I won't bore you with another lengthy lecture about illegal drugs. Most of the bad things heard about them are true. But in Bolivia, where one comes across the plant (not cocaine) almost everywhere, other facets of the coca chronicle don't shine forth quite so clearly as the black-and-white conclusions that drug experts have drawn. And isn't it interesting to learn that the favorite pastime of Bolivia's most prominent citizen, Evo Morales, is coca cultivation? Elected in 2005 with an unprecedented majority of votes, this leader of the cocaleros (coca farmers) is the country's first indigenous president.

Vital to a tradition over 4,000 years old, the coca plant's "sacred leaves" are as much a part of Bolivian life as our daily bread. Once reserved solely for use by Incan nobles, the leaves were not distributed among the hoi polloi until colonial times, when the Spanish conquistadors noticed the salutary effects the mild narcotic had on the native workforce. Production increased and the slaves could endure the crushing brutality of the working conditions in the mines, their hunger pangs and the cold much better.