Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BOLIVIA-US: Morales Treads Fine Line on Coca

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Feb 24 2006 (IPS) - Bolivian President Evo Morales is taking a conciliatory tone in his relations with the United States, in order to keep U.S. aid flowing. Nevertheless, the radically different views that the two governments hold on the eradication of coca anticipate a tense relationship.

Morales, the indigenous leader of the leftist Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), who took office on Jan. 22, is attempting to tone down the intense anti-U.S. sentiment of his trade union supporters. Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is heavily dependent on foreign aid, especially assistance from Washington.

That strategy has become even more complex, since Morales was reelected as president of the coca-growers’ union in the central department (province) of Cochabamba.

It was in Cochabamba that Morales entered into politics, first as a legislator, and ultimately winning a landslide victory in the Dec. 18 presidential elections.

Analysts point out that Morales’ reelection as head of the coca producers’ association raises the question of a conflict of interests. While his long-time work as leader of the “cocaleros” has involved the defence of the coca crop, as president he must enforce the anti-drug law that stipulates the destruction of three-quarters of coca plantations that have been classified as “illegal”.

In Bolivia, coca – which is not only the raw material of cocaine, but has a centuries-old tradition of medicinal and religious uses by indigenous people – can be legally grown on 12,000 hectares of land. Anything beyond that limit is considered illegal and subject to U.S.-backed coca eradication efforts.

Jaime Solares, executive secretary of the Central Obrera Boliviana trade union federation, and Roberto de la Cruz, a town councillor in the sprawling working-class city of El Alto, next to La Paz, were among the first to question Morales’ decision to accept reelection as president of the coca farmers’ association.

Lawyer Carlos Alarcón pointed out that article 43 of the constitution states that public officials must work exclusively for the interests of society as a whole, and not for any particular group or political party. For that reason, he said, “I believe it is incompatible for the president to hold both positions.”

Because of their strength, the coca growers and their political party, MAS, successfully pressed for an agreement with the government of Carlos Mesa (October 2003-June 2005), according to which each family would be allowed to grow coca on a 1,600 square metre plot of land known as a “cato”.

The latest congress of the country’s cocalero organisations, which ended on Feb. 15, approved a resolution that extended that right to each one of the organisations’ 40,000 members.

David Herrera, a cocalero union leader from the coca-growing region of Chapare, in the department of Cochabamba, told IPS that the resolution adopted by this month’s congress did not mean that the amount of coca being grown would necessarily expand.

He said the members of the cocalero organisations are awaiting the results of a study on domestic demand for coca. In his view, the study, which is being carried out with financing from Europe, will lead to a reduction or increase in the land under coca cultivation.

But unofficial estimates say the current area under coca could grow threefold due to the congress’ decision to extend the right to a “cato” to all 40,000 members of the coca growers’ organisations.

However, the most controversial resolution reached by the congress was a call for the expulsion from Cochabamba of members of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

U.S. anti-drug agents work in Bolivia under bilateral agreements, which are renewed by the Bolivian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department when the annual economic aid allotment for Bolivia is negotiated.

While Morales publicly stated that the continued presence of the U.S. agents, who enjoy diplomatic status, would depend on whether Bolivia’s national sovereignty is respected, officials were quick to ensure U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee that the stance taken by the coca growers’ congress was not necessarily shared by the government.

In the meantime, U.S. anti-drug assistance for La Paz was cut from 103 to 80 million dollars for 2006, while a diplomatic source told IPS that next year, the amount would shrink to just 67 million dollars, as part of a policy aimed at cutting the U.S. budget deficit.

Until last year, the United States provided Bolivia with around 150 million dollars a year in aid to be used to fight drug trafficking, replace coca plantations with alternative crops, and promote health care programmes.

The main concern expressed by the George W. Bush administration is the potential for the production of 95 tons of cocaine from excess, or illegal, coca leaf crops.

In 1971 the United Nations adopted the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, followed in 1988 by the U.N. Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

On Jul. 19, 1988, during the administration of then president Víctor Paz Estenssoro, the Bolivian Congress passed Law 1008, which criminalised coca leaf cultivation and stipulated the destruction of coca crops in the Chapare region. Under that law, coca farming was only authorised in the traditional legal coca-growing area of Los Yungas, in the western department of La Paz.

According to U.N. estimates, in Bolivia – considered the world’s third largest producer of cocaine, after Colombia and Peru û there are 27,700 hectares of coca leaf plantations today, of which 10,100 hectares are in Chapare, 17,300 in Los Yungas, and another 300 in the Apolo region north of La Paz.

Bolivian law allows for the cultivation of coca leaf for traditional and medicinal uses on only 12,000 hectares of land.

U.S. assistance in the eradication of coca crops currently consists of the provision of helicopters, planes and equipment to the Bolivian joint task force established for this purpose, with the participation of the three branches of the armed forces and the police.

But relations between La Paz and Washington began to deteriorate following the Bolivian government’s decision to suspend consideration of a bill aimed at granting immunity to U.S. soldiers and citizens before the International Criminal Court, which deals with war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity.

In June 2004, the Bolivian Senate ratified a bilateral agreement signed to establish this immunity, but the measure was blocked in the House of Deputies, where MAS had already achieved a large and influential presence.

Today, the ruling MAS party controls both houses of Congress, and the deadline for approval of the agreement set by Washington has now elapsed.

President Morales and Ambassador Greenlee met Feb. 18 to discuss various aspects of U.S.-Bolivian diplomatic relations, then separately expressed their differing views on the coca eradication plan.

U.S. diplomats have expressed their doubts regarding the voluntary destruction of excess coca crops by the farmers themselves, but the Morales administration maintains that mechanisms established by the coca growers’ unions to convince farmers to comply will be effective.

The deputy minister of Coca and Integral Development û previously known as Social Defence û is coca producer Felipe Cáceres, a former mayor of Chapare.

Cáceres explained that the new government policy establishes the voluntary eradication of excess coca crops in exchange for compensation and support for the development of coca-producing regions.

Herrera, for his part, said the coca farmers’ unions are initiating a phase of reflection on their responsibility for contributing to the fight against drugs through the “rational” cultivation of the crop, and on the role that should be played by U.S. anti-drug forces. But he also stressed the demand that U.S. anti-drug agents must respect Bolivia’s national sovereignty.

According to the union leader, the joint task force is continuing with its mission of eradicating illegal crops with the support of the farmers themselves. Every one of his organisation’s members is complying with the task force’s orders regarding the limits on the amount of coca they are allowed to grow and permitting the destruction of excess plants that go beyond the borders of the “cato”, he stated.

Herrera emphasised that this method of eradicating excess coca does not generate violence, but on the contrary represents a guarantee of ownership of a plot of land with government recognition.

For his part, Greenlee commented after his meeting with Morales that the rate of coca eradication has been very slow so far, and that he hopes it will speed up.

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