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Chronicle on the Scene Feature: In Peru, the Coca Growers' Movement Gathers Strength, But Faces Hurdles

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stunted coca plant in garden at Machu Picchu
Peru is, according to both United States and United Nations figures, the world's second largest producer of coca and cocaine, behind Colombia and ahead of Bolivia. In Colombia, the current bread basket of Andean coca production, coca growers face a hostile government and festering civil war. The odor of chemical herbicides fills the air in the country's coca growing zones, and Washington salutes President Alvaro Uribe for doing its bidding.

In Bolivia, where coca has been part of life for thousands of years, the coca growers' movement has blossomed to the point where one of its leaders, Evo Morales, has now ascended to the presidency and is taking an active role in defending the "sacred leaf." Morales is also pushing the industrialization of the coca leaf and is working with the Venezuelan and Cuban governments to push the process along. And he has responded to the clamor from coca growers in his native region of the Chapare by de facto expanding the size of the permitted coca crop.

In Peru, where coca also has a long history of traditional use, the coca growers (cocaleros) movement is neither as beleaguered as in Colombia nor as advanced as in Bolivia. While the government of President Alan Garcia continues its US-endorsed policies of forced eradication of excess coca and embracing alternative development as an option for coca growers, it also at least pays lip service to the notion of coca as a legitimate crop with numerous medicinal, alimentary and industrial uses.

Unlike Colombia, Peru recognizes the traditional market in coca and has created a national monopoly, ENACO, to buy up the legitimate crop. But the legitimate crop is only a fraction of the coca leaf produced in the country, so farmers there continue to face eradication campaigns and legal repression. More than 30,000 acres of coca fields were forcibly eradicated in 2005, and while final 2006 numbers are not yet in, that figure seems sure to be higher yet.

So Peruvian coca growers are in a feisty mood. They have clashed repeatedly with Peruvian police, soldiers, and civilian crop eradicators, they have held local strikes and national protests against forced eradication and what they see as crooked alternative development efforts, and now, some of their members are reaching positions of political power within the Peruvian government and regional political organizations.

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Nancy Obregon, speaking at DRCNet's 2003 conference in Mexico, holding up coca leaves
"Nothing has changed with the new government," said Nancy Obregon, a former leader of the country's largest coca grower union, the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Fields (CONCPACCP), who was elected to the Peruvian congress in 2005. "It is a bad policy, very repressive, and now they are doing forced eradication again in Tocache and San Martin," the region she represents. "The government has a double discourse. It talks about valuing coca, but then eradicates it. Garcia is supporting the North American policy, but we are trying to achieve a more sensible and humane one, not one that represses the poorest while the rich businessmen in the drug trade go free."

While Obregon said she and allies in the congress are working to advance pro-coca legislation, the going is tough. As a member of the Nationalist Party of defeated presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, she and her allies are in the opposition.

"We cocaleros are people who live in extreme poverty and we have to grow the sacred leaf to survive," said current CONCPACCP head Nelson Palomino. "We are honest, hard-working Peruvians, and we are not guilty of anything for growing the coca plant to subsist," he said, chewing coca leaves as he spoke. "What are we to do? Alternative development has failed. The foreign money that is supposed to come to the valleys goes into the pockets of functionaries in Lima," Palomino complained. "We hope the world will understand that our intentions are good."

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Nelson Palomino, with coca leaves
While CONCPACCP is the country's largest coca growers' union, it is not the only one, and some think that is a problem for the movement. The cocalero movement does have its problems, Palomino conceded. "We have a leadership that is isolated and radical, but shouting simple slogans like 'Gringos, No!' isn't going to solve our problems, nor is putting rocks in the highway," he explained. "Every struggle has its phases. First, the hard line, then the democratic part."

In Palomino's home area, the Ene River Valley, cocaleros have taken power precisely by democratic means. "In my valley, all of the 70 municipalities are ruled by cocaleros, and the government is worried. We have a democratic presence in Ayacucho and the Ene Valley. Now we have to put a stop to the stupid policy of eradication."

But that will require increasing the unity of the national cocalero movement. While Palomino claimed that CONCPACCP represents 90% of all Peruvian cocaleros, there are divisions and rivalries both within the confederation and between it and other coca grower leaders. Analysts familiar with but outside the cocalero movement accuse not only Palomino, but other leaders, such as Obregon and Andean Parliament representative Elsa Malpartida, both former CONCPACCP leaders, of falling prey to personalism and other political sins.

Meanwhile, in Monzon in the Upper Huallaga Valley, cocalero leader Iburcio Morales follows his own, radical path. "The situation is very complex," said Palomino. "We are very respectful of democracy and we can't dictate to other regions, but Iburcio walks alone because he doesn't listen to anything, and he talks to anybody -- the government, the Shining Path, you name it."

"The cocalero movement is isolated, subordinated to the general policies of the Peruvian government, uncoordinated, selfish, and unable to build a collective agenda to tackle the real problems of poverty, the environment, cultural issues, and the international political situation, particularly with the US," said lawyer, human rights activist, and drug and defense specialist Ricardo Soberon in a withering critique. Soberon also saw the electoral victories of Obregon and Malpartida as coming at a cost to the organizing process that had previously relied on their hands-on leadership.

"The movement lost good leaders when Nancy Obregon and Elsa Malpartida [both former CONCPACCP leaders] were elected to the Peruvian congress and the Andean Parliament, respectively. The Peruvian government is smart enough to know about the movement's inability to work together, and it plays them against one another. The government invites one leader, but not the other; it gives money to some, but not the others, and the cocalero leaders are so busy sniping at each other that they can't see the forest for the trees. I blame all four of the national leaders for this situation," said Soberon, who had been an advisor to Obregon but quit in frustration.

While Palomino scoffed at such criticisms, he qualified the democratic cocalero movement as "gestating." A "premature birth" would be a disaster, he said. "If this doesn't work in a democratic manner, we will see a lot of blood," he warned. "We are trying to prepare the ground; we want to do this right, we want to save the life of the coca plant and we want to save ourselves. We are not going to die of hunger," he vowed.

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coca waiting by the side of the road to go to market, Ayacucho province, last month
Obregon also downplayed the criticism. "I am not a traditional politician; I am a peasant and a cocalero leader," she said Wednesday. "I don't have enemies within the movement, but there are comrades who have their own work and their own leadership. We have had failed leadership in the past, but we have to continue to strengthen ourselves and overcome those failures of leadership. It is difficult work, but we are making progress," she added, pointing to the election to office of herself and Elsa Malpartida.

While Obregon acknowledged back-biting and intramural sniping within the movement, she attributed it largely to human frailty. "There is envy and egocentrism, like there is everywhere," Obregon said. "We are also under attack by the yellow press, which misrepresents our actions. And, as women leaders, I think Elsa and I face a certain machismo. Yes, there are different national leaders, and some are more favored by the peasants than others, but there is no controversy within the movement," she maintained.

Although the Peruvian and US governments are quick to draw connections between coca growers and the lingering guerrillas of the Shining Path, Palomino was careful to deny any link between coca growers and the guerrillas, who gestated in Ayacucho in the 1960s and 1970s, then launched an attempted revolution that killed nearly 80,000 Peruvians in the 1980s before running out of steam. On the highway between Ayacucho and the VRAE, the ruins of villages burnt by the Shining Path are visible reminders of their brief and bloody reign. But the Shining Path still has a presence in the VRAE, where in recent months it has attacked and killed police and drug eradication workers.

[Editor's Note: At least, that's the official version. Cocalero leaders in the town where five policemen and two civilian eradication workers were killed earlier this year denied it was a Shining Path action. Instead, they said, the police had been accosting and robbing coca growers, and local residents took matters into their own hands.]

"CONCPACCP is against subversion, either on the part of the government or the clandestine forces," Palomino said. "We are a peaceful and democratic movement, and we would like to see an efficient policy toward the narco-traffic and toward subversion, but your drug war is not working. Your intelligence agencies are working without intelligence, and the police are likely to detain us as terrorists, but we cocaleros are not responsible for that."

For Palomino, a correct coca policy is one that does not attack coca, but one which concentrates on the drug traffic and on going after consumers in the First World. "A sincere policy would attack the chemicals used to make cocaine, and there is no drastic policy against the consumers," he maintained. [Editor's Note: At this point, your reporter had to interrupt to point out that in the US alone, more than 500,000 people are imprisoned in the drug war.] "The US doesn't go after the big chemical factories," Palomino continued. "The corruption and the drug trade is managed by the United States, the men in suits and ties, while they go after us, the humble peasants."

Eradication is definitely the wrong policy, Palomino said. "The Peruvian government is following the lead of the North Americans, but this policy is killing us. This is why we become a pole of resistance. We aren't a colony of the US, we aren't crazy, we chew coca all the time, and we are neither terrorists nor narco-traffickers, we are just trying to survive. We cannot permit forced eradication of our crops."

"The current policy is a disaster," agreed psychologist and coca expert Baldomero Caceres from his apartment in the upscale Lima suburb of Miraflores. "Nothing has changed under Garcia. Public opinion has begun to shift in the sense that the coca leaf is now beginning to be seen as a valuable natural resource, but the government hasn't acted on its own conclusions because it doesn't want to irritate the North American government. We are going to need a miracle, because the political establishment doesn't want to talk about this."

Soberon was largely in agreement on what needs to be done on coca policy in Peru. "First, we have to put a stop to the current things being done by the Peruvian state -- eradication, interdiction, militarization," he said. "The government goes along seizing ten or a dozen metric tons of cocaine a year and arresting 10,000 or 12,000 people, but most of them are just consumers who have to be released, and this is very inefficient. We need to have an assessment of what the current policies have achieved," he argued.

"Second, we need to leave the cocaleros alone. I would use the resources on the coast to get the cocaine leaving the country," he suggested. "We also need more transparency in alternative development. The peasants have been completely mistrustful of Lima for decades, and we have to show we trust the peasants. Finally, we have to fundamentally revise our relations with the US. What are our Peruvian priorities?"

Palomino and CONCPACCP look with hope toward the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in Vienna next year. "We are fortifying our cause for Vienna in 2008. We will work together against the drugs, but when they talk of coca, we demand that they legalize it and decriminalize it as an indigenous plant -- not a drug -- and promote it for industrial and nutritional use."

As for removing coca from the UN treaties' list of proscribed substances, Caceres was not hopeful. "I continue to be pessimistic about the prospects for change at that level," he said. "The Peruvian government isn't doing what needs to be done to present a case for change to the UN, and I don't think Bolivia can go it alone. That is the only useful route to affecting change, but I don't think it is time yet."

For Caceres, legalizing the coca plant would be only an interim step toward doing away with the global drug prohibition regime. "I believe that ultimately we need to work toward the legalization of both the plants and the pharmaceuticals derived from them," he said. "As with coca, so with marijuana and the opium poppy. But there is no reason to have hope that will happen in the foreseeable future," he lamented.

Soberon also had a sobering view of the prospects for change at the UN. "I think 2008 will only bring more of the same," he said. "Now that I have some idea how that bureaucracy works, I don't think things will move on that level. They may throw us a few bones, but at the end of the day, the drug issue is a political tool for the US to intervene in foreign countries. And while Morales in Bolivia may push things, Bogota will always do what the US wants, and so will Lima."

Peru's cocalero movement is strong and vibrant, but also divided and isolated. Beset by internecine rivalries and a difficult international conjuncture, it has so far been unable to fend off the worst of the repressive policies directed from Washington and Lima. While leaders like Nelson Palomino would like to achieve the stature of Bolivia's Evo Morales, none has yet managed to do so. Yet, the cocalero movement is by no means going away. The stakes are too high; for cocaleros it is not just a plant or a crop that is at stake, but their very culture and way of life.

When asked what he would say to the American government and people, Palomino extended a hand of friendship. "I would send a fraternal and democratic salute from the cocaleros. We are not your enemies, but your friends and brothers. But you need to change your international policies. We need alternatives that reduce poverty, not increase it, and we want to live in peace. We also transmit to your land the hope that our culture does not disappear. The very thought makes our blood run cold."

Canada: Afghan Opium Should Be Bought Up and Marketed Worldwide, Defense Think Tank Says

A stolidly mainstream Canadian think tank, the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute, is calling for an international marketing board for Afghan opium in an effort to defang the Taliban insurgency and deflate the booming drug trade in Afghanistan. The recommendation came in an Institute report on Canada's involvement in Afghanistan that warned that the war against the Taliban could be lost.

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2005 Senlis Council symposium on opium licensing, Kabul (photo by Drug War Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
The Institute and the report support Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, but say current NATO policies in the country need adjusting. The possibility of negotiating with the Taliban must be considered, the report concluded, as must innovative approaches to the Afghan opium dilemma.

Last year, Afghanistan accounted for more than 90% of the global supply of illicit opium, creating more than $3 billion in revenues. While much of that money goes to national and international traffickers, the crop is worth at least $750 million to Afghan farmers.

Attempting to eradicate Afghan opium crops, which is official US and NATO policy, only drives farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban, said the report authored by Gordon Smith, Canada's ambassador to NATO between 1985 and 1990. A better approach would be to create an international clearinghouse to purchase opium crops and resell them in the legal medicinal market.

According to the report, Canada in Afghanistan: Is It Working?:

"Innovative alternatives are urgently required to replace current counterproductive policies of poppy eradication by force that only alienate farmers and drive them into the arms of the Taliban. Poppy production in Afghanistan has been a problem for over half a century and has consistently defied international control efforts. Meanwhile, the world's hospitals face a major shortage of opiate-based medicines like morphine. Canada should advocate for the creation of an international marketing board for Afghan poppy producers, whereby farmers are paid fair prices, and overseen by the auspices of a governmental body that would ensure central regulation, legality, and security. Production marketed through this body would be used solely for medicinal purposes on the international market."

As the West finds itself hung on the horns of the Afghan opium dilemma -- eradicate it and increase support for the Taliban; ignore it and watch the Taliban grow rich off the trade while the world's junkies drown in cheap smack -- calls for an innovative response like the one outlined by the Institute are coming with greater frequency. But there is little indication that they're listening in Washington.

Southwest Asia: Opium -- Not Just for Afghanistan Anymore?

With a keen eye peeled on his country's southern neighbor, Afghanistan, a Kyrgyz politician Wednesday came up with a unique solution to solving his own country's foreign debt problem. Kyrgyzstan Member of Parliament Azimbek Beknazarov, a former national prosecutor general, told parliament Kyrgyzstan should allow the planting of opium to pay its foreign debts.

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
"To solve this problem [of foreign debt] we need unordinary steps. I know that my suggestion will stir a heated debate," Beknazarov said. "This year Afghanistan announced almost officially that it will increase opium crops. We have to do the same and permit our people to plant opium for a year or two. After that all international organizations will raise havoc and offer themselves to write off out country's debts," the deputy said.

Beknazarov's remarks came after the parliament refused to enroll in an international program that would write off part of the debt for the world's poorest countries because deputies did not want to admit that Kyrgyzstan is among those countries. The country's foreign debt is about $2 billion.

That figure is about two-thirds the estimated annual revenues from the Afghan opium trade. Afghanistan is also set to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-drug aid from the United States and NATO countries this year. While Beknazarov was undoubtedly speaking tongue in cheek, there is a certain element of truth to his remarks.

Scientists Explore Medical Benefits of Cocaine Plant

Location: 
La Paz
Bolivia
Publication/Source: 
Associated Press
URL: 
http://www.myfoxcolorado.com/myfox/pages/News/Detail?contentId=2591695&version=2&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=TSTY&pageId=3.2.1

Afghan opium crop set to grow in 2007: UN

Location: 
KAB
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
Gulf Times Newspaper (Qatar)
URL: 
http://www.gulf-times.com/site/topics/article.asp?cu_no=2&item_no=136458&version=1&template_id=41&parent_id=23

Drug war is overwhelming Guatemala: Murder of politicians by police just latest indication of challenge associated press file

Location: 
Guatemala City
Guatemala
Publication/Source: 
Wilmington Morning Star (NC)
URL: 
http://www.wilmingtonstar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070306/NEWS/703060329/1050&template=currents

CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen on Afghan Opium Conundrum

Last week I promised to post comments by Peter Bergen (CNN terrorism analyst) responding to a question I asked of him last week about the Afghan opium conundrum. Following is a transcript, prepared with great labor by DRCNet's Tom Klun. (Tom was working from online video of the forum, which took place at the New America Foundation. The forum was devoted to the presenters' findings in a new report on the relationship of the Iraq War to jihadist terrorism -- an issue on which DRCNet as a drug policy organization has no position.)

David Borden, Drug War Chronicle: A number of scholars and NGOs have pointed out that both the opium economy and campaigns against opium growing in Afghanistan are helping the Taliban -- the former through funding, the latter by alienating people from the government and driving farmers to them. Our editor met some of these farmers about a year and a half ago. My question is, how do you see both the opium economy and opium eradication playing into the situation with Al Qaeda; and short of outright legalization (which might not happen in 2007 [editor's note: understatement]), how do you feel the opium issue ought to be handled?
 
Peter Bergen: Well, eradication doesn't work, I mean, there's a vast amount of academic literature showing that it just pushes the growers into the arms of the insurgents, and it is very unpopular in Afghanistan. In fact, Karzai has basically rejected US efforts to get ground spraying, he's pushed that back to 2008. He's saying we're going to just do eradication by hand or by tractor. One of the reasons the US military didn't really get involved in the whole drug issue is that they had bigger fish to fry, which is going after Al Qaeda and the Taliban. I mean, clearly the Taliban is benefitting from this, as are people in the south.
 
Afghanistan is by the way the 5th poorest country in the world. It would be like saying we're basically going to take away the only way you can make a living, by eradicating your fields. So we have to come up with something a little more creative than just saying we're going to eradicate. That would be bad for counterinsurgency policy, and I don't think it will work. So what are the two options? One is, if you're going to do crop substitution you have to subsidize the crops that are being substituted. You can't get people to grow cotton unless they can make roughly what they would be making growing poppy. Now we do this all the time with our farmers, the EU does it all the time with its farmers, paying people to grow things or not to grow things. We're spending $750 million dollars a year on drug eradications in Afghanistan, the farmers are making $750 million dollars, so we've got a fair amount of money to play with, roughly the same amount of money they are benefiting. We can use that for, you know, to prop up the price, give them money to grow crops like cotton, nuts and fruits.
 
And also we should consider that the legalized opiate trade is dominated by Turkey and India, which basically have a lock. Eight percent of the world has almost no morphine, so there's this huge pain crisis in the developing world. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, where we have a huge national security interest. Why not amend the law that is now in place, where Turkey and India are basically mandated to get 80% of the legal opiate trade from US manufacturers? Why not have a pilot project in a province in Afghanistan where there is reasonable security and just see if this idea -- you don't have to do the legalized opiate trade for the whole country, just see in one province if this would work and subsidize farmers so that they can grow poppy for the legalized opiate trade. That's an idea, but either way we're going to have to do crop substitution with subsidies. Nothing else is going to work, we can't just eradicate.
 

Bergen was presumably referring to a proposal floated by the Senlis Council, a European drug policy and development think tank. (It was the 2005 Senlis conference in Kabul that took Phil to the troubled fourth world country.) It's good to see such a high-profile US-based expert raising the possibility.

I actually encountered skepticism about the idea from some of my European colleagues (as well as support for it) when I traveled to Brussels last fall for a conference at the European Parliament. One of them, while expressing admiration for the beautiful execution of the campaign by the Senlis people, pointed out that as long as opiates are illegal for non-medical use, someone is going to supply them, which potentially means that Afghanistan could just have more opium growing in total, the licensed market and the black market -- Ahmed might switch to growing for the licit supply, but that doesn't mean his brother or uncle will. I largely agree with that point.

The other argument is one to which I am instinctively less sympathetic, but which came from someone I respect and for which I don't have sufficient information to evaluate. This other colleague said that the poor countries where the new supply of opiate pain relievers would go to, countries in Africa and so forth, don't have the infrastructure to control them -- they would be a target for organized crime, the drugs might not even get to the patients, and there would be a new organized crime problem of a type that those countries don't have now.

After thinking about this for awhile, I came to the tentative conclusion that we should at least be calling for a pilot project. (It was gratifying to see Peter Bergen say the same thing.) This is why: It's true that new growers of black market opium for the non-medical market should be expected to take the place of any growers who switch to the licensed medical market, or the same growers will just grow more -- supply fills demand, and neither eradication nor substitution nor licensing for a market that's already legal will reduce it. But that doesn't mean all the new growing will be in Afghanistan. Some of it might crop up elsewhere, and there are less destructive places for it to happen than in that unstable country that harbors people who want to kill us. And why shouldn't Afghan farmers have the right to participate in the legal economy? They certainly need the work as much as anyone does. Lastly, patients in severe, chronic pain deserve medication, even if there is a risk of diversion of the supply causing crime, even if in fact it's an inevitability. Let the pilot growing project in Afghanistan be accompanied by pilot opiate pain management projects in the destination countries, with the security issues on both ends getting thought through at the same time.

Time for a drug policy reform/global security campaign?

Location: 
Afghanistan

U.S. says anti-terror allies slip on drugs

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
Washington Times
URL: 
http://www.washtimes.com/national/20070301-033912-4095r.htm

Afghanistan: UN Monitor Cites 'Rapid Deterioration' As Drugs Spread

Location: 
Kabul
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
Radio Free Afghanistan
URL: 
http://www.azadiradio.org/en/news/2007/03/67434DD7-4B7B-4C7D-9F2F-919107E1525D.ASP

Collision Course: Bolivia's "Coca, Si; Cocaine, No" Policy Runs Afoul of the International Drug Control Board and, Probably, the United States

A confrontation is brewing over Bolivian President Evo Morales' effort to rationalize coca production in his country and expand markets for coca-based products. After decades of fruitless efforts to wipe out the coca crop in Bolivia -- the "zero coca" policy embraced by the United States and shoved down the throat of successive Bolivian governments -- Morales, a former coca growers' union leader, has crafted policies that allow for the increased cultivation of coca from the 30,000 acres allowed under current Bolivian law to 50,000 acres. Now, the Morales government is also pushing for expanded legal markets for coca products and, in a joint venture with the Venezuelan government, is preparing to begin coca product exports to that country.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/leaves-drying-in-warehouse.jpg
Drying the leaves in the warehouse. The sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
That does not sit well with either the United States or the international anti-drug bureaucracy based in the United Nations. This week, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) took direct aim at Bolivia in its 2006 annual report (go to Special Topics, beginning with paragraph 171). In the report, INCB accuses Bolivia of violating the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics, which defines the coca plant as an illicit drug.

"The situation in Bolivia, which for many years has not been in conformity with that State's obligations under the international drug control treaties, continues to be a matter of particular concern to the Board," the report reads. "Bolivia is a major producer of coca leaf, and national legislation allows the cultivation of coca bush and the consumption of coca leaf for non-medical purposes, which are not in line with the provisions of the 1961 Convention."

The INCB was particularly concerned that Bolivia "has indicated its intention to review existing national drug control legislation, with a view to using coca leaf for a wide range of products, some of which might be exported." That, too, would not be in line with the INCB's interpretation of the Convention.

The language of the INCB report is a clear shot over the bow aimed at the Morales government's expressed policy of "coca, si; cocaine, no" and its efforts to expand the use of the coca leaf for medicinal and nutritional products. Worse yet, in INCB's view, Bolivia could set a bad example for other coca producing countries: "The Board is also concerned that policy developments in Bolivia could have repercussions in other countries in South America," the report fretted.

The United States has also expressed concern about Bolivian coca policy under Morales, as well as concerns about Morales' ties with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, whose government earlier this month finalized an agreement with Bolivia to finance the construction of coca processing plants in Bolivia and to import Bolivian coca products to Venezuela. So far this year, the US government has limited its expressions of concern to worries about the "anti-democratic" natures of the two left-leaning South American leaders, but the State Department's annual review of other countries' compliance with US anti-drug policies is due later this month. A key question is whether Morales' policies will lead the US to "decertify" Bolivia as being in compliance with those objectives.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/vitalia-and-daughter.jpg
coca grower union member and former leader Vitalia Merida with her daughter in their coca field -- hidden several miles from the road via arduous hike, a legacy of eradication days
The Bolivian government didn't help matters last week when its foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, told a gathering of the Organization of American States that Bolivia would never eradicate coca and that it was more interested in "consensus" than "democracy." "The struggle of the indigenous peoples goes beyond democracy," said Choquehuanca. "In the word democracy, there exists the word submission, and to submit to one's neighbor is not to live well. For this reason, we wish to resolve our problems through consensus."

Clearly, there is no international consensus right now on coca, and if the Bolivian officials and analysts Drug War Chronicle spoke with this week are right, neither is there any indication the Bolivian government is about to bow to drug warriors in Washington and Vienna.

Industrialization of coca processing and expanding legal markets are the correct course of action, said Bolivian Deputy (congressman) Asterio Romero Wednesday. A member of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party, Romero strongly supports the "coca, si; cocaine, no" policy. "First, I want to say that I am from the Chapare, I was a coca grower leader. It was always 'coca zero,' but there will never be zero coca," he told the Chronicle. "We fought for many years, we suffered many dead and imprisoned because coca is a source of economic subsistence for us. We will never allow other governments to impose 'coca zero' on us. We are a sovereign nation; it is a matter of Bolivian dignity," he said.

"While, yes, we fight against the drug traffic -- and we are doing quite well; seizures of cocaine and precursor chemicals are up -- we also have to decriminalize coca growing, and industrialization is the way," Romero argued. "We have to revalorize the coca, we have to find more markets for coca. There are friendly countries that help us, like Venezuela, and we thank them for that."

"With its opposition to the coca leaf, the INCB merely foments the drug traffic," said Silvia Rivera, founder of the Bolivian group Coca y Soberania (Coca and Sovereignty), professor emeritus of sociology at the University of La Paz, and advisor to Romero. "Every leaf that goes to good, healthy uses is a leaf that doesn't go to the traffickers," she told the Chronicle. "That's the best way to fight against the drug traffickers. Those bureaucrats at the UN simply do not understand; they think coca is a drug."

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The Coca Museum, downtown La Paz
"It is the same thing with the government of the United States," said Rivera. "The Americans cannot recognize the rationality of other ways of life, and its approach is truly schizophrenic. It fears the drug trade, yet creates the conditions for it to flourish by trying to block other uses for the coca plant. The US tries to argue that Evo is in favor of the cocaine dealers, but it is the US policy that aids them. Also, the US has backed the narco-dictators in the past because they were radical fascists. That's who the US supports and gives arms to so they can kill the people."

In fact, rather than retreating in the face of criticism from the INCB and the US, the Morales government appears determined to push the envelope with its agreement to supply coca products to Venezuela. Bolivia is also making noises about going to the root of the problem by mounting an effort to amend the Single Convention to remove coca from its list of illicit drugs.

"This is a way for Chavez to push the limits and see what the boundaries are," said Kathryn Ledebur of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network, which has monitored the Bolivian coca economy and efforts to repress it for years. "Who is going to stop him? There are already substantial coca leaf exports to northern Argentina, and nobody says anything about that. Still, if this helps sharpen the focus on changing the Single Convention, that's a good thing -- it needs to be amended."

Ledebur doubted that the Morales government would make a concerted effort to amend the Single Convention in Vienna next year. "Let's just say that his domestic coca policy is more advanced than his international one," she said. "I see little chance of anything getting done unless there is some sort of concerted lobbying effort with Peru, and I don't see Peruvian President Garcia as someone who is willing to actively buck the US."

Such a move would require a concerted effort by coca producing countries, said Romero, and he didn't see that happening just yet. "It is the job of the Bolivian government to change the Vienna Convention," he said, "but it is also the job of Colombia and Peru to join us at the UN. While we here in Bolivia have with Evo a government with popular support to push this, in Peru and Colombia, the governments are neo-liberal and pro-imperialist and they will not join us. But we are anti-neoliberal and we are going to maintain this position. Still, we are willing to talk government to government and man to man about this."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/santos5.jpg
La Paz street vendor Santos, enjoying an afternoon coca chew
But for Romero and the Bolivian government, standing up for coca is a matter of national pride. "We are a sovereign government, and we will move forward with our policies," he said. "Coca is not dangerous, coca is not poison. We will work bilaterally with countries that support our position. And countries that now try to impede us, like the US, well, perhaps we can send them some coca, too."

With Bolivia already facing off against the INCB, the next measure of the Morales government's coca policies will be the US certification decision, which should come by the middle of March. But given the current conjuncture in hemispheric affairs, with a rising tide of left-leaning governments and the US, obsessed as it is with affairs in the Middle East, losing influence in the region, the US may well step back from attempting to isolate and punish Bolivia via the certification process.

"The US still cannot step out of its anti-drug framework of using the military and forced eradication," said Ledebur, "but there is no agreement within the Bush administration about what to about certification. If it decertifies Bolivia, it loses what little leverage it has left. Bolivia now has other sources of assistance, and not just Chavez; it no longer has to blindly obey US dictates. If the US chooses to decertify now, what does it do next year?" she asked.

This is getting very interesting. The Morales government's "coca, si; cocaine no" policy is anathema to both the US and the INCB, but there appears to be little either can do to stop it, and chances are the Bolivian challenge will eventually aim directly at the 1961 Single Convention, perhaps knocking the first hole in what is the legal backbone of the global drug prohibition regime. Stay tuned.

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