Coups and Cocaine: Two Journeys in South America

Coups and Cocaine
By Anthony Daniels
Published March 20, 1986
John Murray Publishers Ltd
ISBN-10: 0719542626
ISBN-13: 978-0719542626
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All of the books that Anthony Daniels wrote under his own name are, in some way or another, travel books. Of course, travel literature comes in many varieties, including political explorations, colorful stories of personal anecdotes, guidebooks and more. Given that much of his writing contains elements of the first two of these categories, it should not be surprising that his first book would combine political analysis with personal experience in the South America of his childhood dreams. Thus “Coups and Cocaine”, in which he finds the former ubiquitous and he flushes the latter down his sink.

Perhaps Daniels’ characteristic modesty prevents him from drawing many conclusions from these two brief visits, as he avoids (admirably, in my view) sweeping judgments about South American political history. In Bolivia, for example, he simply notes a long ancestry of dictatorship in a country where Marxism predates Marx. He meets several people –both South American and gringo — with extreme political views but withholds any deep analysis of the source of their animus. In Paraguay, he visits the home of the country’s first dictator, Dr. Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, calling him “one of the most extraordinary men of the nineteenth century” for the combination of his effectiveness as a ruler and his “despotic eccentricity”, and he decries the deification of the incompetent “monster” Marshal-President Francisco Solano Lopez. Still, he does not seek to explain why political violence and dictatorship find a natural home in South America nor why many Westerners encourage their development there, even though these questions were surely foremost in his thoughts. Likewise, he does not investigate the political ramifications of the cocaine trade.

He is less reserved about the missionaries he meets in Filadefia, a German Mennonite settlement which is almost overwhelmingly prosperous and orderly given its location in the extremities of the Chaco desert. Missionaries have always intrigued Daniels, and he says the following of the Mennonites.

“As missionaries have always done, they conflate power with truth. They tell the Indians that it was God who made them rich, and bribe them with the off-scourings of our factories. One is at the same time awed by the sincerity of these complacent people, who spend years in the uppermost parts of the earth for no material gain, and repelled by their intellectual dishonesty and capacity for self-deception.”

For the most part, though, he is content to describe the people and places he sees and the experiences he has along the way, and these are the real joys of the book, from his description of the Altiplano…

“A strange beauty — it is certainly that. I know of no landscape that so unmercifully exposes one’s own insignificance.”

…to a bus ride in Lima, his description of which clearly illustrates his respect for those poor of the world determined to maintain their dignity and civility. Along the Amazon River in Peru, he spends a few days in a jungle camp and describes its proprietor and another gringo with great facility and humor, noting they are “conscious, however, of a certain moral superiority over those who had not survived six years in the jungle.”

In the second of these two journeys, he vows to cross from the East Coast to the West (Rio de Janeiro to Antofagasta in Chile) on the ground using only public transportation, a challenge he would take up again years later in Africa. (Riding for days across the Chaco desert in the back of a smuggler’s pickup truck hardly counts as cheating.) Near the end of this trip, on a bus ride from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, he sits next to a Bolivian woman who, realizing he was not only gringo but a doctor (and therefore relatively wealthy), shrieks and moans at the supposed loss of her purse and the 40 pesos inside it. When Daniels offers her money to help make up for her loss, she takes it and then begins claiming successively greater losses. Wise to her game, Daniels ceases his charity whereupon the woman begins accusing him of being a thief. In such a seemingly trivial story lies the whole history of Western social policy.

Most moving of all, perhaps, is his heartbreaking visit to the gringo prisoners of a Bolivian jail, which is not to be missed.

Years later, Daniels would live in Guatemala for 8 months, driven by a need to understand the ultimate cause of the political upheavals in that country, but here he is content to reveal his modest experience and allow the reader to mull the larger questions on his own. Such reticence is foreign to many of the gringos he meets along the way. At the end of the first trip, he decamps to San Francisco, where he overhears the conversation of two self-absorbed Americans and concludes:

“I turned from what Life and Therapy had taught her — candour without revelation — to my bowl of raspberries, and longed for the Altiplano.”

It is surely a sign of Daniels’ talent — and of other things — that the reader does, too.

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