While some attendees at the Out from the Shadows conference in Mérida last week expressed disappointment that Bolivian coca leader and Congressman Evo Morales was not present, it now appears Morales stayed away because he was in the midst of successful negotiations with the reeling government of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to reverse the government's "zero coca" policy in the Chapare region. According to Knight-Ridder News Service, the Bolivian government will formally announce within a week that it is backing away from the "zero coca" option and will allow farmers in the Chapare to grow up to one-fifth of an acre of coca.
The apparent deal came at mid-week last week, with the Sanchez de Lozada government staggering from crisis to crisis as long-standing peasant and worker mobilizations around coca-growing, fiscal policy and privatization gave way to heavy fighting between the Bolivian army and police and demonstrators. At least 29 persons were reported killed in fighting in the capital, and government buildings were burned after soldiers opened fire on police in front of the government palace.
The government crisis continues this week, as Sanchez de Lozada was forced to accept the resignations of his entire cabinet in a bid to retain control of the government. Caught between the repeatedly expressed demands of his primary financial backer, the United States, that the eradication campaign continue heedless of the political cost, and the growing mobilization by peasants over the coca issue, Sanchez de Lozada chose to heed the demands of his countrymen in a bid to quiet at least one of the many rebellious sectors of Bolivian society calling for his removal. Now, Sanchez de Lozada faces the prickly task of appeasing the drug warriors from Washington.
The US, which publicly considers Bolivia's coca eradication campaign one of its few "success stories" in Latin America, has long pressured successive Bolivian governments to ignore popular resentment and move forward with the "zero coca" option. It has provided nearly $1.3 billion in anti-drug and development assistance -- all tied to eradication -- to Bolivia in the last decade. Newly arrived US Ambassador to Bolivia David Greenlee has quickly moved to continue the US's heavy-handed policies toward the Bolivian government, warning repeatedly in the national media in recent days that failure to move toward "zero coca" could result in a cut in US assistance. "A pause in eradication is a pause in development," Greenlee warned, adroitly applying the same sort of rhetoric of blackmail the US routinely decries when used by other countries.
While Bolivian coca farmers say that the plant has many legitimate uses in the national and international markets other than cocaine, the US government staunchly holds the position that no expansion of coca production is justified.
Under the agreement between Morales and government negotiators reached last week in Cochabamba as violence flared nationwide, about 15,000 farmers in the Chapare will be allowed to grow a catu -- about one-fifth of an acre -- during a six month period. Bolivian drug czar Ernesto Justiniano told Knight-Ridder that the government would undertake a study during that period to determine the extent of the legal market for coca.
Allowing limited coca crops in the Chapare would only increase the nation's current crop by about 10%. Bolivia currently allows about 30,000 acres of coca to be grown for the local legal market in the Yungas region. That is down from about 180,000 acres cultivated prior to the beginning of the "zero coca" campaign in 1998. While US officials routinely call the Bolivian campaign a "success story," it has succeeded primarily in expanding the area of coca production in neighboring Peru and, most recently, in Colombia, where the crop had not been traditionally grown. Colombia is now the world's largest coca producer.
The Bolivian "success story" has also led to the massive mobilizations that have shaken the US-backed government of Sanchez de Lozada to its foundations and to the rise of political parties and leaders who are strongly pro-coca. The leader of the cocaleros, Evo Morales, fell only 43,000 votes short of winning the presidency last fall, and Morales and his political allies now control a third of the Bolivian congress.
The "zero coca" option in Bolivia is now dead, Morales told Knight-Ridder, adding that he believed that by the time negotiations were completed, the amount of new cultivation allowed will be two or three times the one-fifth acre per farmer currently under consideration.