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A Coca Grower to Lead Bolivia? How U.S. Intervention May Have Triggered a Populist Revolution

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Bolivia stands today on the verge of a potentially radical political overhaul. Following the resignation of President Carlos Mesa in early June (the second Bolivian president in two years forced to resign in response to nationwide protests), Bolivia’s Congress voted July 5 to hold general elections this coming December instead of in 2007 as previously had been scheduled. Much to Washington’s dismay, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) leader Evo Morales announced his candidacy for the presidency the following day.

Morales has gained considerable renown from his daily exposure in the local and international press. The former coca union icon and legislative leader now occupies a particularly strategic position and is poised to benefit from the early presidential elections. His fame was catapulted in the 2002 presidential race when the U.S embassy warned that if Morales was elected, the U.S. would cut off approximately $75 million in economic assistance and $48.5 million in counter narcotics aid to Bolivia. Washington’s interventionist strategy backfired, producing a public outrage that almost carried Morales to victory, with him losing the presidential election by only 1.5 percent of the popular vote. He has since attracted substantial additional recognition for his role in coordinating an opposition movement among the indigenous peasantry. Considering MAS’ outspoken antagonism to any form of U.S. intervention and its connections to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, U.S. policymakers today are beginning to fear the further eclipse of American influence if Morales takes office in December. They also fear that under a Morales presidency, the new leader would waste no time in joining the de facto left-leaning South Atlantic Alliance consisting of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

Most American legislators are unaware that the rising popularity of figures like Morales can be traced to a longstanding political discontent over Washington’s reach in Bolivia among indigenous groups and the country’s poor working class majority. Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group blames the unrest on the “government’s failure to incorporate the majority of people into political life.” Many Bolivians have grown increasingly alienated by the lack of responsiveness on the part of state institutions and the history of foreign intervention, evinced through Morales’ promise to “unite Latin America’s 135 Indian nations to expel the white invasion, which began with the landing of Columbus in 1492.” The antagonism harbored by Bolivia’s indigenous toward the West, and the United States in particular, has its roots in U.S.-sponsored policies perceived by the indigenous community as unrepresentative of their most basic needs. The most controversial of these policies are associated with a passive but powerful actor: the coca leaf.

The Politics of Coca
Coca first appeared in the Andean diet around 3000 B.C., when the antecedents of the Quechua and Aymara Indians found that chewing the plant provided a mild stimulant and protection against high altitude sickness, hunger and cold. Coca remains an integral part of indigenous tradition in Bolivia today, and is frequently used in communal ceremonies, medicinal healing, manual labor industries and as a highly valued unit of exchange. The coca leaf is chewed in a ritual called acullico, or it can be ingested as an additive in mate tea. Coca chewing is prevalent among indigenous populations and Bolivia’s lower classes. Non-indigenous enterprises have even found value in the coca leaf as a flavoring substance, exporting the leaf to French households via Mariani wine and to American consumers as the capstone ingredient of Coca-Cola.

The isolation of the cocaine alkaloid by a German chemist in 1860 immeasurably changed the coca leaf’s fate in the Andes. While coca in its leaf form contains only 0.1-0.8 percent cocaine, coca leaves became the base for an addictive and often lethal illicit substance whose consumer following spread with electrifying speed throughout the developed world. In response to increasing demand, coca production rose sharply in Bolivia and throughout the Andean region, and by the mid 1960s, it had become Bolivia’s most lucrative agricultural crop. Throughout the 1990s, the coca/cocaine economy generated yearly revenues of upwards of $2 billion in off-the-book dollars for Bolivia, or 12.9 percent of the country’s reported GNP. To date, coca cultivation generates more profit per hectare than any other Bolivian agricultural crop.

Eradicating Coca at the Source
For nearly twenty years, the United States has pursued coca leaf eradication policies in rural Bolivia as a corollary to its heavily financed “War on Drugs.” These eradication efforts include initiatives that range from aerial herbicide spraying to crop replacement sustainability programs. Supply-side crop eradication advocates argue that if the U.S. can meaningfully reduce or eliminate the supply of cocaine produced abroad and then exported to the United States, then the domestic price of the drug will increase to the point that cocaine addicts will no longer be able to easily afford it. Eliminating an affordable market supply of cocaine could conceivably shrink the number of drug addicts, dealers and traffickers in American society.

Opposition to this source-crop eradication strategy is rife among Bolivians, the majority of whom belong to indigenous ethnic groups. These bodies maintain that coca is an Andean product whose domestication and use have been a part of indigenous culture for thousands of years. They feel their right to cultural determination and political autonomy should take precedent over the addiction of Americans to a relatively new European concoction.

Bilateral Bolivia-U.S. collaboration has recognized the traditional, legitimate uses of the coca leaf in efforts to mitigate levels of cocaine processing. Since 1986, the Bolivian government has determined that 12,000 hectares of cultivated coca crop is sufficient to meet the annual licit domestic demand for the coca leaf. Any coca grown in excess of this maximum has been targeted for eradication by UMOPAR, the U.S.-financed Bolivian counter-narcotics enforcement body. Despite the stringent legal framework established to impede coca production, yearly coca replanting rates have far exceeded eradication rates, and total coca crop growth in Bolivia has continued to increase since 2000.

“Alternative Development” projects have attempted to fill in the economic gap left by coca eradication by providing sources of replacement income to negatively impacted coca farmers. Any potential gains in voluntary coca eradication efforts have been mitigated by the high licit and illicit demand for the coca leaf and local resistance to foreign-imposed sanctions. Development projects, often framed in the terms of the bottom-line coca elimination approach of the “War on Drugs,” have been encountering more and more obstacles in a country with an increasingly well-organized grassroots political opposition. This movement, led by former coca grower and now political leader Evo Morales, has revolutionized the power dynamic in Bolivia in favor of the marginalized indigenous majority. It is also responsible for catapulting Morales to his current level of popularity and increasing his prospects for becoming Bolivia’s next president.

Many Bolivians are troubled by the militarization and violence associated with the coca conflict and the serious threats posed by such factors to the country’s still green democracy. Since the coca wars began in the late 1980s, clashes between security forces and peasant coca activists have left 57 coca growers dead and have paved the way for many human rights abuses. In 1995, in a dramatic move to step up the anti-drug war, security forces imposed a state of siege on selected rural villages and many peasant coca leaders were arrested without warrants. One thousand UMOPAR troops were dispatched to five small villages in the Chapare region, and the ensuing confrontation resulted in the deaths of six peasants and the wounding of ten others by the time the occupation had ended.

Is Anti-Americanism the Face of the Next Bolivian Administration?
At present, 70 percent of the 8.4 million Bolivians live below the poverty line. Most rural communities lack electricity and running water, and the country’s rates of infant and child mortality are the highest in South America. Coca eradication strategies cost Bolivians a total of $500 million each year. It is little wonder that the most marginalized populations in the Andean nation resent the United States for dramatically altering peasant livelihoods based on an epidemic of cocaine addiction it has failed to competently address back home. Over time, this resentment has snowballed into a deep distrust of state authority that has manifested itself in massive strikes and large-scale popular uprisings. In recent years, the result has been a trajectory of slow but steady deterioration of Bolivia’s highly volatile and increasingly disruptive social and political order. The past month’s events confirm that Bolivian society has reached a boiling point and today sits poised to drastically transform its political landscape, which could seriously compromise the U.S.’ security strategies in the region. Morales’ election to the presidency would mark a dramatic shift in Bolivian state politics away from American cooperation, and likely pose serious challenges to Washington’s future diplomatic and anti-drug endeavors, particularly when the capacity of the Western Hemispheric Affairs Bureau of the State Department is at an all-time low in its ability to creatively direct U.S. policymaking.

For More Information:

Arostegui, Martin. “Indian Movement Seeks to ‘expel white invasion.’” The Washington Times: June 24, 2005.

Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. “FY 2003 Budget Justification: Andean Counterdrug Initiative.” U.S. Department of State, May, 2002.

Charles, Robert B. “U.S. Policy and Andean Counterdrug Initiative.” Testimony before the House Government Reform Committee Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources. Washington, D.C.: March 2, 2004.

Howden, Daniel. “Bolivia in turmoil as president quits in bid to stop strike.” London: The Independent, March 8, 2005.

Ledebur, Kathryn. “Coca Conflict Turns Violent.” Washington: Washington Office on Latin America, Feb 2003.

Leons, Madeline Barbara and Harry Sanabria. Coca, Cocaine, and the Bolivian Reality. State University of New York Press: Albany, 1997.

Lindsay, Reed. “Bolivian Coca Growers Fight Eradication.” Washington Office on Latin America Publications, March 25, 2003.

Nash, June. “Interpreting Social Movements: Bolivian Resistance to Economic Conditions Imposed by the International Monetary Fund.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 19, No. 2 (May 1992), pp 275-293.

Sanabria, Harry. The Coca Boom and Rural Social Change in Bolivia. The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1993.

Sterling, Eric. “Drug Policy: Failure at Home.” Foreign Policy In Focus: vol. 6, No 16, May 2001.

United States Agency for International Development. “Bolivia: USAID Program Profile.” June 9, 2004.

United States Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Bolivia. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, February 25, 2004.

U.S. Department of State. “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2002.”

Weil, Andrew. “Letter from the Andes: The New Politics of Coca.” The New Yorker, May 15, 1995: 70-80.