Reporting on Bolivia’s Coca Rebirth: An Interview with Jessica Camille Aguirre

AP Photo/FILE, Dado Galdieri

In her recent Guernica article “Bolivia’s Quest to Spread the Gospel of Coca,” journalist Jessica Camille Aguirre reports on policy changes in South America’s poorest country. New coca legalization goes against everything American policymakers think about cocaine, but as many Bolivians will tell you, coca isn’t cocaine. It’s a leaf, touted in Bolivia as a cure-all, no more dangerous than a cup of coffee, but far more invigorating.

The coca leaf doesn’t get you high, it simply wakes you up. Many Andean people chew or drink it brewed for energy, or to treat altitude sickness or stay sharp. The War on Drugs only led to violence and death in Bolivia, and small farmers suffered. After cooperating for decades with the U.S. on drug issues, Bolivian president Evo Morales decided to expel the DEA and let Bolivia design its own drug policy: It would let farmers grow and sell more coca leaf inside the country and encourage entrepreneurs to use it in new commercial products. Despite the very clear difference between powder cocaine and raw coca leaf, some people describe the diffrence as a matter of degree. I spoke with Aguirre about her reporting on a profound shift in thinking about an unfairly stigmatized plant.

How did you first hear about this story?

There had been a few short international and domestic news items published about coca products in Bolivia, though it was very difficult from afar to get a sense of scale or degree of success. Luckily, I landed a grant from the International Reporting Project to travel to Bolivia for some pretty loosely defined reporting, and there I could explore the potential story more deeply. This is true for a lot of places in the world, but in Bolivia it is particularly gratifying to just show up and be patient. Once I arrived in La Paz and found one of the main outreach guys for Coca Real, which is the beverage that features most prominently in the region, it took many hours-long interviews and travel to some remote locations to earn his trust and, by extension, that of the main coca entrepreneur I profiled, Juan Manuel Rivero. As a result, I think I probably gathered more scenes and on-the-ground reporting than is typical for these kinds of pieces, simply because being physically present was often the only way to get access to people and gain their confidence. Most of that reporting didn’t even make it into the final piece, but it helped me understand and convey the political and social context of the trends that interested me.

You said you had to establish trust with your sources in the coca industry. What in particular were they wary about?

The main people I wanted to profile had had bad blood with one another, and as professional entrepreneurs, I think they didn’t want to sully the image of their products with drama. I think they had very a business-driven inclination to only represent the commercially appealing parts of their products, which makes sense; I mean, Coca-Cola didn’t respond to my queries at all. Then there was the proprietary aspect of their formulas, which was tied in to this central sense of ambiguity about the main ingredient. Bolivia still lacks a lot of the infrastructure needed to conduct tests and determine the exact chemical composition of coca-based products, but there is a very keen awareness of avoiding any resemblance to the manufacturing processes that produce white powder cocaine. Obviously, it remains a pretty touchy subject.

Aside from the people with whom I spent a lot of time, there is just still generally a lot of pain in some communities that is left over from the War on Drugs. Sometimes it only seems like a war in the abstract, or even like an anachronism, but the violence it wrought in Bolivia (and continues to do in other parts of Latin America) remains very palpable. And that has fomented some pretty deep anti-American feelings. At one point I traveled pretty far into the jungle to spend the day with a coca farmer, who told me that he had warned all of his neighbors I was coming beforehand to avoid there being a confrontation. It’s not that the initial suspicion was always insuperable, or even that it entirely disappeared in some cases, but I think it was important to have a sense of awareness about its driving forces. The memory of pain can last much longer than even the scars do.

You speak Spanish, which must have saved you a lot of trouble and allowed you to capture nuance, and gather better information, during interviews than writers who have to use interpreters. Can you talk about the challenges reporting in a country as a bilingual person? 

I grew up speaking Spanish, and then I studied in Mexico during college. Reporting in other languages can be incredibly frustrating, in that people sometimes utter these sentences that have such wonderful cadence or they use a really unexpected but perfect word, and then it doesn’t translate at all and it becomes difficult to capture the exact mood of a moment. But honestly, at the risk of sounding trite, I find it to be rewarding. Writing, at its best, transports you somewhere else, whether that be another physical place or even just another mindset. I like the idea of, even just for a moment, bringing a faraway world slightly closer.

Born in California, you’ve reported in South America and Europe, and now live in Germany. What is your history with Bolivia? Have you visited the country repeatedly or harbored a lifelong interest in its culture?

I lived there for a year in 2009. That was a very different time in the country, shortly after President Evo Morales overcame his most significant political crisis. I was there when Morales was re-elected for a second term, and there was a lot of hope and excitement about what his strengthened mandate would mean in terms of structural changes for the indigenous majority that had so long faced prejudice and discrimination. Part of the reason I wanted to return was to see what that process had accomplished, nearly a decade later. In sum, it’s a mixed bag (which I’ve written about elsewhere).

With coca, though, there’s been a pretty clear shift in both policy approach and cultural perceptions. So aside from being interesting for a number of pharmacological reasons, coca can act as a kind of an avatar for some of the symbolic transformations in Bolivian society that have ruffled traditional power structures. And that’s obviously not a process that’s complete in any sense of achieving resolution, which is what makes it exciting.

You showed how, for many Bolivians, especially indigenous people like President Morales, coca is a sacred plant, and changing coca policy is a political act. What other symbolic transformations are at work in Bolivia or around coca?

There have been some pretty significant changes since Morales came to power, mostly rooted in reclaiming the country’s indigenous heritage. That’s not to say that entrenched racism has been eradicated, but it’s the first time many of the country’s cultural traditions constitute a central role in civic life. That’s true on a purely symbolic level (Morales has, for example, consistently held inauguration ceremonies at the ancient archaeological site of Tiwanaku and enlisted indigenous spiritual leaders to lead the rites) as well as a formal level, with a new constitution that defines Bolivia as a plurinational state. Coca is certainly part of that, although there are also contrasting tensions at play. Coca has traditionally been considered sacred, but it’s also clearly something else, including a business opportunity and a political lever. Just like any symbolically powerful substance, really. So the new political order has just allowed for a fuller expression of that.

Seventeen million people used cocaine in 2015. I imagine some percentage of those people would chew coca leaf if they could get it. Is part of Morales’ tireless coca advocacy a desire to tap that global demand? Or is Bolivia trying to turn coca into their version of quinoa?

Well, Bolivia already has quinoa! I think a lot of Bolivians who believe in promoting coca have pinned some hope on the idea of industrializing the leaf and selling products like soda, wine, or shampoo. Trade in raw commodities is simply not as lucrative. Most Bolivians who are involved in the business side of coca manufacturing are much too discrete to say so most of the time, but I think the long-term ambition is to mount a serious challenge to international corporate brands like Coca-Cola.

Part of their strategy is to market coca as a very distinct product to cocaine, and I’m not sure anyone at that point would set out to blur those lines — although I did meet a medical doctor in La Paz who is experimenting with using coca to treat cocaine abuse and alcoholism. In the end, though, it will be interesting to see the extent to which views on the dichotomous nature of coca and cocaine will stick. From a chemical standpoint, it could be argued that the difference between the two is just a matter of degree. But that’s not the way a lot of people see it. I can’t think of any other substance that’s similar.

Coca-Cola uses extracts from legally imported coca leaves in its soda formula, but considering the legality of deadly tobacco and alcoholic products, hypocrisy lies at the heart of U.S. drug policy. Could Americans actually see a commercial coca energy drink? Or bagged coca tea? 

That’s a very good question. Bolivia and Ecuador have signed a bilateral agreement allowing for trade in coca products, and the largest manufacturer of coca tea in Bolivia is making plans to enter that market. A lot of officials at various levels of government told me in vague terms about diplomatic conversations with large countries that have growing consumer bases, as well as support, especially in terms of research, from friendly foreign governments; but I was never able to firm any of that information up to the degree that I felt confident publishing it. Probably the most dramatic achievement was Morales’ withdrawal of Bolivia from the UN drug convention and re-ascension to the treaty with an exception for coca. I’ve heard anecdotally that Bolivian embassies around the world can have coca leaves now, which is pretty interesting. About the U.S. market, I don’t have any way of telling what will happen in the future. There is a lot of hope and a lot of ambition for that in Bolivia; whether it’s a chimera is anyone’s guess. But in Bolivia itself, a lot has changed already.