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The ascent to power of a new elite of militant indigenous people has been a long time coming. Nearly 500 years ago the Spanish conquistadores arrived and transformed Bolivian territory into what was essentially a forced labor camp. The Quechua and Aymara highland communities were broken up, and the people were forced to toil in suffocating mines or pressed into working on haciendas, left free just long enough to scratch out a subsistence from the land. The original inhabitants of the Bolivian Amazon have fared no better: After independence came in 1825, they were herded into deadly camps in the lowlands to harvest the latex of the hevea tree for export as rubber. As recently as the 1980s they were driven off their fertile lands by migrant Indian communities from the highlands, like those that settled in Chapare. Andean history is scarred with Indian rebellions, but tragedy was the outcome of most, and they brought little change. Across Bolivia and well into the 20th century, indentured labor remained legal. To this day in outlying regions, women are raped by their patrón almost as a matter of horrifying routine—and children from such unions bear a lifelong stigma.

In 1952 a nationalist revolution led to sweeping land reform and gave the vote to women and Indians (previously excluded as "illiterates"). But for most of the century a corrupt military elite controlled the country. When the generals finally retired from power and called for elections in 1982, Bolivia was the poorest country in South America and one of the most indebted. Its experience of modern civic life was nonexistent, and the chasm between the overwhelmingly Indian majority and the tiny, lighter skinned elite could not be bridged. Five consecutive presidents were not so much elected as picked from the white ruling class.

Which is not to say that apathy ruled the land. The country was in a state of almost nonstop turmoil, thanks to radicalized priests, local unions and organizations, and thousands of unemployed and highly politicized displaced miners from the highlands who had migrated to the Chapare region to set themselves up as coca farmers. The coca farmers, who were growing a crop that in Bolivia is as traditional as tobacco and were often diverting it to the illegal cocaine market, battled Bolivian troops trained by U.S. special forces. The priests and union leaders organized entire communities to march for their rights. A short-lived nativist guerrilla movement bombed a few electrical pylons and put out the idea of a return to the Inca Empire. From 2000 onward, each day seemed to bring a fresh barrage of marches, roadblocks, strikes.

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