Bolivia: The Cocaine Conflict
Bolivia’s newly elected president, Evo Morales, has pledged to defy the U.S. by legalizing cultivation of coca, the primary ingredient in cocaine, and nationalizing his nation’s oil and gas industry. Are Bolivia and the U.S. on a collision course?
What’s so special about Evo Morales?
An uneducated Aymara Indian, he is Bolivia’s first “native” president. His father was a tin miner in the Andean highlands that form the west side of the landlocked country. When the mines closed at the end of the ’70s, his impoverished family, like so many others, moved east to the Chapare region—in the headwaters of the Amazon—to farm coca leaves. Morales emerged as a radical leader of coca farmers in the late ’80s. This year, he sought the presidency as a populist after violent protests brought the country to a virtual standstill, forcing the resignation of president Carlos Mesa last June. In December, Morales won with a record 54 percent of the vote.
Why did he win?
It was a triumph for the indigenous “have-nots”—mainly Aymara and Quechua Indians, who form more than half the population—over the European-descended “haves,” who have run the country since independence in 1825. (The man Morales beat was Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, a Harvard-educated scion of the business elite whose wife is American.) The struggle between the white settlers who dominate the rich eastern provinces and the indigenous peoples concentrated in the west has formed the backdrop to Bolivian politics from the time of Spanish colonial rule. Not surprisingly, Morales’ speeches are littered with references to colonial exploitation. His victory caused considerable concern in the U.S., where critics accused him of being both a Che Guevara–style revolutionary and a narco-terrorist.
Why such a vehement reaction?
In his campaign Morales mixed socialist rhetoric with appeals to traditional “Indian” values. He would be a “nightmare for the U.S.,” he boasted, and form an “Axis of Good” with his socialist pals: Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Stirring bitter folk memories of Spain’s “rape” of Bolivia’s silver and gold reserves in the 17th century, he vowed to nationalize the gas and oil industries, and seize control from the multinational corporations. Above all, he promised to legalize production of Bolivia’s traditional national crop—coca—and get it removed from the U.N. list of controlled substances. “For us coca is a way of life,” as he put it. “I’m saying ‘no’ to zero coca but ‘yes’ to zero cocaine.”
What are coca’s uses besides cocaine?
Unlike in other coca-producing countries, such as Colombia, there is a genuine tradition of coca use in Bolivia, where it is revered for its curative properties and role in indigenous rituals. “Before you go to work, you’ll chew some coca leaf,” says Morales. “After lunch, after a nap, you’ll chew some. If you drive long distances, you’ll chew it to stay awake. It is used as tea to combat altitude sickness and made into herbal remedies. Popes have used it, kings of Spain, Fidel Castro.” Coca is used to make shampoo, biscuits, face cream, and soft drinks.
Is Bolivia a big coca producer?
One of the biggest. The growth of the international drug trade in the ’80s led to a meteoric rise in coca cultivation, notably in Chapare. By 1990, Chapare had become the principal supplier of coca used for cocaine in the U.S. market. (Colombia is the main manufacturer of the drug, but until recently, Bolivia and Peru supplied 90 percent of the coca leaves.) All that changed with the U.S.-backed war on drugs in Latin America. By 1997, most of the coca plantations in Chapare had been ripped up, at an estimated cost of $500 million to the economy. But peasants could find no crop that provided coca’s income, so the area under coca cultivation is now back to more than 70,000 acres. The truth—which Morales would be unhappy to admit—is that without coca’s role in narco-trafficking, large sections of Bolivian society would simply starve.
So will the U.S. and Bolivia become enemies?
Morales’ victory has been widely interpreted as a blow to the U.S. agenda for Latin America and part of a strong leftist trend on the continent. Yet it is doubtful that Morales can truly afford to alienate Washington, which is, after all, Bolivia’s biggest aid donor. And for all his pre-election rhetoric about the U.S. war on drugs being an excuse to intervene (“In Latin America it’s narco-terrorism, in Iraq, WMD”), he has taken a far more conciliatory line since then, professing himself open to negotiations to cut back on the production of coca for cocaine. On the gas industry too, Morales is said to be hinting at a pragmatic approach: Instead of expropriation, which would land Bolivia in the international courts, he would seek to renegotiate contracts with the multinationals to bump up Bolivia’s share of the profits, which are now just 18 percent. Washington, for its part, is also being more conciliatory. The Bush administration has agreed to consider allowing more coca farming for traditional uses, and last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid Morales a friendly visit. While in La Paz, she said that for the U.S. to cut off aid to Bolivia would be “like shooting yourself in the foot.”