Latin America: Coca Leader Poised to Become Bolivia's Next President 7/15/05

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Two decades of hard-line US anti-drug policy in Bolivia is about to bear fruit, but it will be bitter fruit indeed for America's drug warriors. Peasant coca grower leader Evo Morales has announced that he is seeking the presidency, and as arguably the most popular politician in the country, he is well-positioned to win. If he does so, the United States will be faced with a Bolivian leader whose policy positions on coca and cocaine, not to mention the free-market and unfettered capitalism, are in direct opposition to those of Washington.

Evo Morales
Although elections were not set to be held until 2007, the Bolivian congress voted earlier this month to move them to this December 4 after popular protests forced President Carlos Mesa from office. While those protests were not centered on coca-related issues, coca grower unions participated, and the political party led by Morales, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, in its Spanish acronym), helped spearhead those protests.

Mesa had replaced previous President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, who had himself been forced out of office by bloody street protests in October 2003. That violence between security forces and civilian protesters left at least 60 people dead. Sanchez de Losada had barely defeated Morales in the 2002 presidential election, in which Morales came within slightly more than one percentage point of winning the presidency.

In that election, the rising coca grower leader and political figure gained even more prominence thanks to ham-handed threats from the US Embassy that it would cut off nearly $125 million in economic and counter-drug assistance if Morales won. His stature has only grown since then, as he as become the leading opposition voice to the Bolivian political establishment.

As a coca grower leader, Morales has only benefited from broad hostility to US-backed and –financed coca eradication programs, which cost Bolivian farmers $500 million a year in revenue losses, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Now, he is poised to ride to the presidency on a platform of indigenism, anti-Americanism, coca, and rejection of economic liberalism. If he wins, he will join a growing caucus of left-leaning leaders in Latin America who are skeptical, at best, of US plans for the area.

"Now we can say I'm a candidate for the presidency," Morales told reporters last week after winning approval for his candidacy from two coca grower organizations. The coca leaders had reached "a consensus in order to go to the elections to win and change the neoliberal model, and not to lose," he said.

"Morales' election to the presidency would mark a dramatic shift in Bolivian state politics away from American cooperation, and likely pose serious challenges to Washington's future diplomatic and anti-drug endeavors, particularly when the capacity of the Western Hemispheric Affairs Bureau of the State Department is at an all-time low in its ability to creatively direct US policymaking," noted the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in a Wednesday .

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Issue #395 -- 7/15/05

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