Misconstruing the Truth about the People and their Coca

Spotlight on Bolivian Coca is Out of Focus

Andean Information Network

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs’ (COHA) April 25 “Spotlight on Bolivia: The “Coca Diplomacy” of Evo Morales,” generalizes and speculates about Bolivian drug policy and relations with the United States. While the general conclusion that U.S. policymakers should do more to cooperate with Bolivia’s vision of coca is valid, inaccuracies presented weaken its arguments. The following clarifications on coca and cocaine data and policy would help improve COHA’s message.

1.“At last month’s meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Bolivian President Evo Morales made headlines by dramatically brandishing a coca leaf he had apparently smuggled into the Austrian city between the pages of a book.”
  • This event occurred at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in 2009, not last month.
  • As a head of state, Morales has no need to “smuggle” coca leaves because he has diplomatic privileges
2.“Morales swept into the presidency in 2006 with the backing of Bolivia’s cocaleros movement, a syndicate of coca-growers unions Morales has helmed for decades.”
  • Morales gained a higher percentage of the popular vote than any other president, at that time and still, in spite of recent setbacks, his support extends far beyond coca growers unions. He has long been head of one sector of coca growers’ from the Chapare region, but other groups in the La Paz Yungas at times oppose his initiatives
3.“[Morales’] support base is firmly rooted in Bolivia’s largely agrarian indigenous population. “
Bolivia’s indigenous population is no longer “largely” agrarian, with large population center like El Alto. 

Furthermore, indigenous support for Morales should not be generalized. At this time, key indigenous umbrella organizations, such as CIDOB and CONAMAQ strongly oppose a series of Morales initiatives, such as the construction of a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory. Furthermore, Morales also has non-indigenous support from various unions and traditional leftist leaders.

4. While the article, like many others, note that Bolivia is the third largest coca producer, that also puts Bolivia in last place with much less the amount of coca produced in both Colombia and Peru.

5. “Bolivia represents an enormously important area of interest for the United States. The Andean nation’s drug policy is of vital concern to Washington”
  • Certainly, the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg and the DEA in 2008 provoked a great deal of resentment against the Morales administration in Washington, leading to the withdrawal of trade preferences and repeated “decertification” of the country’s drug war performance. However, Bolivia has never been a priority in U.S. foreign policy of the cocaine produced in Bolivia goes to the United States, with the great bulk of it traveling to or through Brazil and Argentina to Europe and West Africa.
6. “The Andean nation’s drug policy is of vital concern to Washington, and so when the Morales government officially devotes 12,000 hectares…—to the cultivation of a plant classified internationally as an illegal substance, the United States takes notice, and when it calls for 8,000 more to be set aside, that is doubly true. “
  • Although 1988 Drug Law 1008 stipulates 12,000 hectares of legal coca production, Morales administration policy sets the limit at 20,000 hectares, based on model of controlled, rationed coca production initially agreed upon in October 2004 before Morales was president.
7. “12,000 hectares—about 30,000 acres, though Bolivian coca occupies approximately triple that in reality”
  • This comparison depends on which coca production statistics and legal limit ceiling used. At 20,000 hectares, the state limit since 2006, current coca cultivation surpasses this figure by only 50%. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Bolivia had 31,000 hectares of coca in 2010, the U.S. sets that number at 34,500.
8. The article in accurately described the coca leaf as “deceptively innocuous-looking.”
9. “Washington, traditionally in favor of the complete eradication of the plant as part of its ongoing War on Drugs, has in recent years endorsed alternative development programs.”
  • USAID began alternative development efforts in Bolivia almost 25 years ago.
  • Yet, as the COHA piece points out, the success of these programs, which subsidize farmers who choose to suspend their cultivation of coca in favor of other crops, has been limited, as coca is far more cost-effective than alternatives like coffee and rice, which are more labor-intensive and require more land to grow.
10. “And so while recent spikes in global food prices and renewed USAID pushes for alternative development models’

Although USAID continues to carry out alternative development efforts in parts of the La Paz Yungas coca producing region and has recently had some success with coffee projects, repeated Morales administration officials accusations of USAID’s meddling in Bolivian politics and severe budget cuts have dramatically reduced the scope and depth of these efforts- clearly these are not “recent pushes.”

11.“ USAID pushes for alternative development models have made life without coca more feasible for the average farmer, the polarizing plant remains an attractive option for many Bolivians.”
  • The areas in which USAID carries out alternative development efforts have limited and reduced coca production per family, but not eliminated it entirely in a Bolivian government initiative known as “Integrated Development with Coca.”
12. “Indeed, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, although significant eradication efforts have been made under the Morales administration, they “have not resulted in a net reduction in the cultivation of coca,”
Yet, US figures published in the same report register a net reduction of 500 hectares from 2009 to 2011.

13.“The sheer size of Bolivia’s domestic cocaine industry, to say nothing of the vast amounts of the drug produced elsewhere and shipped through Bolivia en route to markets in the U.S. or Brazil, is of grave concern to the United States”
14. “And Morales, who expelled the American ambassador and drove U.S. DEA agents from the country in 2008, has done little to assuage Washington’s fears.”
  • Although friction persists over these and other issues, bilateral relations have improved. On the ground, daily cooperation between the Narcotic Affairs Section of the US embassy and Bolivian drug control officials and agencies continues. In November 2011, both countries signed a new bilateral framework agreement, formally reinstating relations and announced the intention to reinstate ambassadors. The agreement includes recurring dialogue on drug policy issues. In January 2012, Bolivia, the U.S. and Brazil signed a trilateral coca monitoring agreement. At the Summit of the Americas, President Obama observed,“The recent agreement between the US, Brazil and Bolivia to go after (excess) coca cultivation in Bolivia, is the kind of collaboration we need.”
Other U.S officials have also recognized Bolivian counterdrug efforts. In October 2011 Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield told a congressional committee,”In Bolivia, eradication efforts are a highlight of a sometimes difficult bilateral relationship and actually exceeded the 2010 target of 8,000 hectares. These efforts appear to have stopped the expansion of coca cultivation…Those findings are reinforced by the U.S. estimate that actually showed a 500 hectare decrease in land under coca cultivation. In Bolivia, U.S. assistance, including support for training and canine programs, has resulted in Bolivian seizures of coca leaf that are 19 times higher than they were a decade ago.”

The 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, also notes: “The government took significant steps to control coca production in the Chapare.” As well as “The FELCN [Bolivian antidrug police] achieved numerous high-profile successes during 2011”and “ Bolivia intensified coca eradication efforts, reporting the eradication of more than 10,000 hectares for the first time since 2002, even as eradication forces continued to meet resistance from coca growers.”
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