[Marxism] Morales may end support for coca eradication program

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jan 21 07:40:57 MST 2006

In Bolivia, a $100 Million Question
President-Elect May End Support for U.S.-Funded Coca Eradication

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 21, 2006; A01

ETERAZAMA, Bolivia -- At a muddy camp in the vast tropical lowlands known 
as the Chapare, about 150 Bolivian soldiers and policemen responsible for 
destroying the area's illegal coca plants have done little in recent weeks 
but kill time. They chat outside crude tents built of tree limbs and 
sagging tarps, haul water from a nearby river and sweat through the 
fatigues the U.S. government bought for them.

"We're not doing anything these days," one soldier said, ignoring the 
mosquitoes alighting on his exposed forearms. "We're just waiting to hear 
what's going to happen next."

It's the $100 million question in Bolivia: What will become of the 
U.S.-financed program to eradicate coca, the plant used to make cocaine, 
now that the longtime head of the coca growers' union, Evo Morales, is 
about to become the country's president?

Morales, 46, who will be inaugurated Sunday, said during his campaign that 
he might withdraw Bolivia's support for the eradication program, a keystone 
of the U.S.-backed anti-drug and alternative crop development campaign 
here. He has hinted at decriminalizing the cultivation of coca, which is 
legally chewed as a stimulant and used in traditional medicines, and he has 
criticized regional U.S. anti-drug programs as false pretexts for 
establishing a military presence.

But Morales has toned down his rhetoric since being elected in December, 
suggesting that the government might maintain current limits on 
cultivation, at least until a study assessing the potential demand of the 
legal coca market is completed. He consistently reminds people that he is 
committed to fighting cocaine, but not at the expense of the farmers who 
want to make a living growing coca for legal use.

That ambiguity leaves the door open to continuing cooperation with U.S. 
counter-narcotics authorities, while feeding an unprecedented optimism 
among Morales supporters who would like to create an international industry 
of legalized coca. Those cocaleros envision a country where their crop, 
instead of being associated with crime, is a key ingredient in exports from 
soft drinks to shampoo.

Morales's announcement Thursday that he would appoint a coca farmer to head 
the ministry responsible for fighting drugs was a signal to coca farmers 
that pressure might shift away from growers toward those who process the 
leaf into cocaine.

"A lot of people completely changed their attitudes after the election, 
because finally we're in power -- it's our country now," said Apolonia 
Sanchez, 42, a coca farmer who tends her plants just a few miles from the 
eradication camp. "There's a feeling of happiness and optimism right now."

The Chapare is one of two coca-producing regions in Bolivia. Under an 
agreement with the government, farmers in the Yungas region are allowed to 
grow 29,600 acres of coca in areas where it has been a traditional crop for 
centuries. However, the U.S. government estimates another 31,100 acres were 
grown illegally in the Chapare and the Yungas in 2004. Altogether, a little 
over 60,000 acres of coca leaf were grown that year.

After clashes between farmers and eradication troops in the Chapare, the 
government made a truce in 2004, exempting 7,900 acres from eradication. 
That allotment is split among about 26,000 households, and it has eased 
much of the tension associated with eradication in the region.

The villages around Sanchez's farm and the eradication camp are considered 
Morales's home base, the place where he launched his career as a coca 
farmer after an impoverished youth. In an interview before the election, he 
said his political sensibility was formed when he witnessed an innocent 
coca farmer burned to death on the street by police.

Later he became the leader of the coca growers' federation, openly 
advocating legalization, rebutting charges of links between farmers and 
drug dealers and criticizing U.S. intervention.

After his election as president last month, residents of the Chapare threw 
a massive party for him in this small town. Sanchez helped cook the food, 
and thousands filled the dirt streets until dawn.

"We are winning the green battle," Morales told the revelers, according to 
an Associated Press report. "The coca leaf is beating the North American 

The farmers say all of their coca goes to legal uses. They strip it from 
the plants, dry it, stuff it in 50-pound sacks and sell it at local markets 
on Sundays. But the U.S. government estimates that Bolivia sends out about 
70 metric tons of cocaine each year -- mostly to Brazil -- which would mean 
that much of the coca it grows is used for cocaine.

Transforming coca leaves into cocaine is a multi-step chemical process. In 
Bolivia, it usually starts with a maceration pit -- usually a plastic-lined 
hole in the ground -- where the leaves are mixed with sulfuric acid and 
stomped to create an acidic juice. The juice is filtered and neutralized 
with lime or carbonate to form a crude paste.

The paste is eventually purified into a cocaine base through the addition 
of more chemicals and filtering. According to a U.S. government study, it 
takes 300 to 500 kilograms of coca leaf to make 1 kilogram of cocaine.

The Bolivian military and police reported that in 2005 they uprooted about 
19,800 acres of coca fields, destroyed more than 3,800 cocaine labs, 
confiscated about 50 tons of cocaine paste and arrested more than 4,000 
drug traffickers.

U.S. government officials do not participate directly in drug raids, but 
Washington pays for everything from the Bolivian forces' helicopters to 
boots, spending about $100 million a year on eradication and development of 
alternative crops. Backers of the program say the money has been effective, 
reducing the amount of cultivation in the Chapare from about 98,800 acres 
in the 1980s to about 12,600 acres in 2004.

With Morales in power, however, coca advocates are predicting a boom in 
production. This week in a central square in La Paz, the capital, 
coca-based businesses organized a fair to showcase and sell coca-based 
products such as teas, cakes, energy bars, skin creams, cough medicine and 
acne remedies.

"The market is going to expand a lot," said Juan Carlos Ticona, 24, who 
works for a company in the city of Cochabamba that makes medicines from 
coca. "Evo is knowledgeable about these products, and we think that he 
might be able to open up export opportunities for us in other countries in 
Latin America and in Europe."

Before that happens, a study funded by the European Union will aim to 
measure the size of the market for legal consumption of coca. Alvaro Garcia 
Linera, who will become Morales's vice president, told the Bolivian 
newspaper La Prensa this month that the study would be crucial in 
determining the future of the coca industry and the eradication program. If 
the study indicates that the market can support more than the current 
29,600 legal acres, cultivation might be expanded; if it's less, stricter 
eradication standards might be implemented, he suggested.

"With the study in hand, we will revisit the issue of eradication," Garcia 
said. "We feel that eradication must be accompanied by alternative crops, 
for which purpose international aid, especially from the United States, 
must become much more effective."

The approximately $50 million that the U.S. spends each year on alternative 
development emphasizes production of crops such as bananas, pineapples and 
hearts of palm. Although the market for such products has increased in 
value from $13.8 million in 2002 to about $34.9 million last year, 
according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, many coca 
growers have been reluctant to give up their coca plots for fear other 
crops will bring less money.

Earlier this week, a two-lane bridge spanning a muddy river about 200 yards 
from the eradication camp was reduced to one lane: Santiago Ureña, a 
farmer, was taking advantage of the flat pavement to spread his coca leaves 
for drying. He said he wouldn't be unhappy with Morales if he continued the 
current eradication arrangement, but he admitted that his dream was 
counter-narcotics officials' nightmare -- significantly increased production.

"We have to grow coca because it's the only crop that brings enough money 
to feed our families," said Ureña, 54, who paused from sweeping his leaves 
to fill the plastic bag of a passerby who wanted a little for chewing. "And 
with Evo, I think things are going to get a lot better."

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