December 21, 2005

Bolivia coca crusade may antagonize US

By Fiona Ortiz

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- President-elect Evo Morales' pledge to protect coca crops to help Indians, who celebrate the leaves as a centerpiece of their ancient culture, could antagonize Bolivia's neighbors and the United States who fear only cocaine traffickers will benefit.

Morales, who won Sunday's presidential vote, for years led coca farmers against joint U.S.-Bolivia eradication campaigns in the 1990s, saying the programs hurt many indigenous farmers who grow the leaf -- the raw ingredient used to make cocaine -- for religious and cultural uses.

The United States disagreed, pointing to the fact that much coca is transformed into cocaine in thousands of clandestine labs, making Bolivia the world's third biggest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

Cutting restrictions on coca production may just mean more cocaine ends up on streets of the United States and Europe, U.S. officials and some drug experts say. Cocaine is far more lucrative for farmers than coca.

"Morales's policy is very risky because they will be permanent pressure from drug traffickers to take over the extra production," said Ricardo Soberon, a Peruvian-based independent drugs analyst who works with many European aid groups to stop cocaine trafficking.

Indians chew coca as a mild stimulant that wards off hunger and Bolivian law allows 30,000 acres of legal coca cultivation after the area was expanded in 2004, a government concession to Morales' road-blocking coca movement.

But overall Bolivian coca cultivation increased six percent in 2004 from 2003, to 61,000 acres, according to data from the U.S. State Department. The United States says Bolivia's cocaine production potential is 65 tonnes a year.

Morales says he wants to fight cocaine production while seeking to legalize coca leaf export for tea, herbal medicines, toothpaste, soft drinks and other licit products.

After winning the vote, Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous leader, said the U.S. drug policy was a pretext for militarizing Bolivia and challenged Washington to join him in a new kind of fight against cocaine.

"You can't fight drug trafficking by saying zero coca or zero coca farmers," he said.

Morales says coca growers can self-police cocaine labs in their midst, arguing that the aggressive U.S. campaign has just stimulated cocaine production.

But Morales could face an uphill struggle. Drug mafias could take advantage of more legal coca sold in Bolivia's street markets given that illegal cocaine is so lucrative.

"If he says the communal counter-drug effort is going to be effective the U.S. has to make him stick to it and say 'how are you going to bring this about'," said Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist at Florida International University.

In Washington, Morales will also run into a Bush administration policy that links illegal narcotics to international terrorism, analysts said.


Security officials in neighboring Brazil, which has a big cocaine consumption problem, said last week they are closely watching Bolivian drug policy.

"Bolivia's cocaine exports primarily go to Brazil, and Brazil has a major stake in stability in Bolivia. So it's not just going to be the U.S. government that will be major determiner of policy," said Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Whatever Bolivia does is unlikely to shift Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's commitment to an all-out war on cocaine, but in Peru officials are worried that Bolivian policy could inspire Peru's own grass-roots coca-farmer movement.

Bolivia and the U.S. currently work together to eradicate coca plants outside the legal limit, destroy cocaine labs and help farmers develop alternative crops.

Analysts said the U.S. military presence is small and limited to training local police. Bolivia receives $150 million a year in U.S. aid, some of it for anti-drug programs, and most of it contingent on anti-drug cooperation.

Morales may be willing to risk losing that money as he courts relationships with potential alternate sources such as anti-U.S. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

(additional reporting by Carlos Alberto Quiroga)