Alejandro Landes’ film Cocalero showcases the increasing politicalization of Bolivian indigenous groups as a response to US interference in the region’s economic life. Much like Our Brand is Crisis, US interference in Latin America is portrayed as a consequence of national interest rather than humanitarian sentiment, pitting the resident ethnic populations against the influence of an industrialized nation in the protection of their economic autonomy. The electoral success of Evo Morales in the 2006 Bolivian presidential race illustrates the rise of the Pink Tide in Bolivian politics as a result of commodity capitalism and military repression of indigenous political demands.
The unionization of the Bolivian coca leaf farmers arose out of a historical legacy of the subjugation of Indian peoples. Les Field explains that while indigenous groups have lived in the Andean region for tens of thousands of years, they have lived at least the most recent 500 years under the thumb of various conquerors (40). Colonization has had a deleterious effect on the political and economic influence of indigenous groups through official state racism delegitimizing indigenousness and the capitalistic manipulation of labor and natural resources to benefit the elite as well as industrialized nations. In the face of overwhelming change, indigenous groups have maintained a sense of continuity with the past, primarily through the growing of coca, which forms the economic backbone of the communities portrayed in the film.
Coca became problematic as an economic resource for Bolivian indigenous groups, however, because of the United States eradication program. In an attempt to forestall the farming of coca leaf, and thus the creation of cocaine exported to the United States, the US compelled the Bolivian government and its military to expunge its countryside of the plant. As a result, many indigenous groups faced military repression in resisting the eradication program. The film uses archival footage to portray the various ways indigenous groups protested and the extent of military repression they faced: roadblocks and protests were routinely met with violence.
To counter this repression and strengthen their economic and political position, Sawyer explains that “throughout Latin America, there has been an explosion of indigenous organizing in the last 30 years” (76). The film evinces this phenomenon by showcasing the emerging political power of the coca leaf unions, whose champion is Evo Morales. With the rise of the Pink Tide, Andean politics are changing, but the election of Evo Morales to the Bolivian presidency marks the first time a member of the indigenous community was elected as a president in Latin America.
Cocalero’s documentary technique traces the rise of the unionization of the coca leaf growers and showcases the increasing politicalization of indigenous communities. In stark contrast to the campaign and disastrous presidency of Goni in Our Brand is Crisis, the election of Evo Morales to the Bolivian presidency is a manifestation of the ways in which indigenous communities have worked to gain recognition and power. The film ends on a hopeful note, reflecting the transformation of the political space made possible by the increasing agency of indigenous communities.