Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city (after La Paz and Santa Cruz), is a welcome relief after visiting the brutal altiplano region to the west. The city is temperate year round, and it's unnecessary to dress in layers merely just to go to bed, which one must do in mountainous La Paz. Because of its mild, eternally springlike climate, Cochabamba has been the agricultural center of Bolivia since its founding in 1571. Throughout the 17th century, when nearby Potosí was one of the largest and richest cities in the world (due to its seemingly inexhaustible silver mines), Cochabamba's importance increased because the mountain cities' dependence on it for food (Potosí is far too high above sea level to grow all of its own food).
In 2000, following World Bank–mandated reforms, the departmental government of Cochabamba decided to privatize its water supply, through Bechtel, a U.S. corporation. After the price of water tripled in price (and rainwater collection was outlawed), the city saw a spasm of violent rioting that didn't end until the government canceled the deal.
In 2007, when then-prefect Manfred Villes Reyes kept pushing for departmental autonomy--even after a majority of Cochabambinos voiced their opposition to the move--campesinos from the outlying communities occupied the city center for several days in protest and in support of President Evo Morales. Finally, city residents (who were more copacetic to the idea of autonomy) and campesinos (who militantly supported Morales) battled on the streets, leaving several dead. Incidentally, Villes Reyes lost his department recall referendum this past Aug. 10. Instead of refusing to acknowledge the vote, as he promised, he left office with a whimper.
Coca growing is an important industry in the region surrounding Cochabamba, and it's no surprise that the campesinos reacted violently to Villa Reyes' repeated provocations against the president. Morales was a coca farmer himself and still is the president of the coca-farmers' union, itself a militant workers' organization. (Morales tried to resign his position in the union this year, but its members re-elected him anyway.)
Cochabamba is also home to one of the few legal coca mercados in the world. Located in the sleepy and sunny suburb of Sacaba (which, in 2002, also saw riots when the government tried to close the mercado, resulting in several dead), it's a small open-air warehouse tucked among houses and junior-high schools. Women in traditional dress and men in jeans and button-up shirts mill around the space that is full of 50-kilogram reinforced-plastic sacks of the best coca leaves. These plants are bound for the legal coca market, ready to be turned into tea, chocolate, and traditional medicine, in addition to the omnipresent wad of vegetable matter gripped between a campesino's teeth and gum. The chaff and unaesthetic leaves are used in the production of cocaine. (Pictured are 50-kilogram bags of coca, which sell for 300 bolivianos--or approximately $40. According to various sources, two of these bags can be transformed into a kilogram of cocaine paste--a compound nearly identical to crack cocaine. Assuming a street value of $100 per gram for powdered cocaine, that's $100,000 worth of drugs produced from $80 worth of raw coca leaves--quite a markup, although chemical costs, transportation, and legal challenges narrow the profit margins considerably.)
In the 2007 film Cocalero, which traces Morales' ascendancy to the Bolivian presidency, the future leader can be seen exhorting a crowd in the mercado to vote for him, shouting "Death to the Yankees!" (For good reason, too, as previous Bolivian administrations had worked hand in hand with the U.S. government in a coca-eradication program that threatened not only the livelihoods of thousands of coca growers, but also aimed to eliminate a eons-old source of traditional medicine; furthermore, the U.S. had no beef with Coca-Cola continuing its use of the plant to manufacture its product, and Bolivians certainly did not invent the process of turning their sacred leaf into cocaine--nor is there a market there for it nearly as large as in the U.S.)
But yesterday at the mercado, perhaps because of Morales' staggering victory in the polls, Villa Reyes' defeat, and the obvious fact that the indigenous people of Bolivia--who for hundreds of years haven't had a political voice (or, worse, were de facto slaves of the ruling elite)--are no longer sidelined to the chorus in Bolivian society, this gringo was treated not with threats when visiting the mercado, but the usual quizzical stares, and people even granted him a picture after he politely asked.