The Miami Herald
Fri, Jan. 27, 2006

Bolivia, U.S. set to collide over coca

New Bolivian President Evo Morales is promising to fight cocaine production, even while supporting the cultivation of its main ingredient, clouding U.S. drug-fighting efforts.

Knight Ridder News Service

LA PAZ, Bolivia - As former coca grower Evo Morales takes his first steps as the new president of Bolivia, a battle over the U.S.-funded anti-drug efforts in this impoverished, cocaine-producing country is taking shape.

Morales has promised to fight production of the drug, but protect the cultivation of its main ingredient, coca leaf, which traditionally is chewed to increase stamina and suppress hunger in the high-altitude Andean country.

Coca is widely grown in Bolivia, even though it's illegal in most of the country. Morales, 46, promised during the campaign that he'd decriminalize coca growing.

''We say no to zero coca, but we are promoting zero cocaine,'' Morales said last week. ``We are going to try to interdict the narco-traffickers.''

One of Morales' top coca advisors, Dionicio Núñez, goes further, saying the new government will likely end cooperation with U.S. anti-narcotics forces, which have been in the country since the late 1980s.


Such a move could endanger an average of $150 million in annual U.S. foreign and anti-drug aid to Bolivia, much of it contingent on U.S. officials certifying that the country is doing its part to stop cocaine production.

Also at stake is Bolivia's application for $598 million in aid from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account, which is intended to help needy countries that the U.S. government thinks are on the right developmental path.

''We are going to ask the United States to leave,'' said Núñez, a former congressman with Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party and a leader of the country's coca growers. ``We are no longer going to accept the requirements that the United States has placed on us.''

The new government also will likely end the forced eradication of coca leaf, Núñez said. The program has been carried out largely in the tropical Chapare lowlands.

Although coca is a pressing U.S. concern in Bolivia, American officials have said that they'll wait until after Morales acts. The Aymara Indian, who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, also has confronted the United States on trade and management of its natural gas resources.

The cause of coca, which growers call ''the sacred leaf,'' is one of survival, despite U.S. efforts to promote other crops such as bananas and palm hearts in the Chapare, said farmer Eulalio Camacho Zuares. ''Many will starve without coca,'' Camacho Zuares said. ``There will be no peace without coca.''

65,500 ACRES

The country is the world's third-biggest producer of coca, behind Colombia and Peru, with about 65,500 acres under cultivation, according to U.S. estimates.

Coca production grew by nearly 8 percent from 2004 to 2005.