Voters in Bolivia head to the ballot box Sunday to elect a new president, and by all accounts, coca grower leader and Movement to Socialism (MAS) party head Evo Morales will win the popular vote. While a tight race could see the election ultimately decided by the Bolivian Congress, most observers see Morales as likely winning even in that event.
Morales, who still has coca fields of his own, became a coca grower leader in the Chapare in 1993, founded the MAS in 1995, and won a seat in the Bolivian Congress. In 2002, Morales barely lost the presidential election to Washington favorite Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, and a year later, Morales and the MAS were instrumental in popular protests that drove him from power.
The specter of a Morales victory is causing hand-wringing in Washington, whose imposition of harsh coca eradication policies under successive Bolivian governments helped create the peasant mobilizations that led to Morales' rise to prominence. But unlike the last Bolivian presidential elections, where loud US threats warning the country against Morales backfired, leaving him a mere handful of votes from the presidency, this time the US Embassy is keeping a low profile as voting day approaches.
US Ambassador David Greenleaf has limited himself to urging the country to not change its current coca policies, a legacy of US intervention a decade ago. "I hope there aren't going to be any changes, because if there are changes for the worse, the country that's going to suffer is Bolivia," he told an anti-drug rally near La Paz two weeks ago in remarks widely interpreted as anti-Evo.
"Something historic is happening in Bolivia," Morales said in a recent Associated Press interview. "The most scorned, hated, humiliated sector now has the capacity to organize."
At campaign stops, Morales pulled no punches. His party "represents not only hope for the Bolivian people, but also a nightmare for the government of the United States," Morales told the supporters. "I have no fear in saying – and saying loudly – that we're not just anti-neo-liberal, we're anti-imperialist in our blood."
While Bolivia has been rocked by coups and political instability throughout its history and subjected to the mandates of Washington by compliant governments for the past 20 years, the country's indigenous majority – Aymara and Quechua Indians constitute two-thirds of the population – has been energized by the struggles around coca, natural gas, and the sorry state of the national economy many blame on free market policies adopted by previous governments.
While the coca issue has not played a key role in this year's campaign, it has been a defining issue, said Kathryn Ledebur of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network. "There is not much debate about the coca issue because it's a given," she told DRCNet. "Both Evo and his main opponent, conservative Jorge Quiroga, have made their names on the coca issue. When he was president for one year, Quiroga brought in a US-funded mercenary eradication team to go after the crops. Evo's position is clear. While voters felt the issue didn't really need to be explored further, it is the elephant in the living room."
For many Bolivians, coca is a part of traditional culture and is used as a food and medicine as well as a cash crop. And even under the Washington-friendly government last year, much of that coca made its way into the drug trade, with the country producing an estimated 107 tons of the stuff, an increase of 35% over the previous year. Once the world's leading cocaine producer, Bolivia now holds third-place behind Colombia and Peru.
What Morales will do about coca if elected is the key question. He has called for decrim in the Chapare, an end to forced eradication, and, in a move sure to warm the hearts of global drug reformers desperate for a national government to take a stand, has vowed to challenge the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime -- on its listing of coca as a drug.
"Evo is talking about decriminalizing coca growing in the Chapare, but hasn't specified quantities or precisely how it would be enacted," said Ledebur. "US policymakers are already concerned because we now have an agreement where a small amount of legal production is allowed there and growers are allowing eradication of the rest. This is an example of permitted production, and there hasn't been a big surge in production or a free-for-all for the traffickers. What the agreement has done is generate about $60 to $80 a month for each grower family, and it has ended the protests, the blockades, the attacks on security forces, and the human rights violations. For these people, coca is about putting food on the table, not trafficking."
"Evo has many attractive qualities, but he has shown himself willing to separate himself from his platform when there is good reason to do so," argued Larry Birns of the Center on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington, DC, liberal policy think tank. "What is worrying is the possibility he could turn out to be another Lucio Gutierrez," he said, referring to the deposed Ecuadorian president who campaigned as a left-leaning nationalist but shifted rightward once in office. "Morales will have to choose between the continentalism of Hugo Chavez and the imperatives of the Washington consensus."
A second key question is how the US will respond. "The US response to what's happening around coca and how a Morales administration deals with it will be a central issue," said Ledebur. "Economic assistance is tied to certification, so that's a weapon the US could use. But if the US decertifies Bolivia and withdraws counterdrug assistance, then who is going to carry out those programs? This punitive mechanism for compliance doesn't seem to work anymore."
Morales' leftism and his stance on coca "will make him replace Hugo Chavez as public enemy number one for the US in Latin America," predicted Ted Galen Carpenter, a US drug policy analyst at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "While I would like to see a Latin American leader challenge US drug policy, the fact that its going to be an outspoken socialist will make it all the easier for Washington to demonize him," he told DRCNet.
Still, said Carpenter, US policymakers are reaping what they sowed. "We have antagonized the Bolivian peasantry on this very important issue by pressuring a succession of Bolivian governments to adopt our harsh policies. The election of Morales will be at least in part blowback over the drug issue," Carpenter said.
"If Morales is not careful, Washington will use the drug issue to make him a pariah, and more dangerously, it will start dealing with the military and possibly encouraging separatism in Santa Cruz province," home of the country's natural gas reserves, said Birns.
On the other hand, Venezuela's Chavez looms ever larger on the hemispheric stage. "If Chavez makes a serious commitment to Evo in terms of helping the economy or if Evo nationalizes the natural gas reserves, Bolivia could be invited to join Petrosur, the Argentine-Brazilian-Venezuelan energy combine. That could be a real option," said Birns. "Morales is going to have to decide whether he will survive in a non-traditional manner by throwing his lot in with Chavez or try to work with the US-dominated international lending agencies and the US Treasury Department."
Perhaps the US will learn a lesson in Bolivia, said Carpenter. Instead of shoving drug prohibition down Latin America's throat, the US should back off. "Our policy should be benign neglect," he said. "Our drug policy has helped weaken our position in Latin America. In the case of Bolivia, it is possible that Morales would win without the drug issue, but it would be much more difficult."
Bolivian politics has always been interesting. If, as expected, the US is faced with President Morales next year, it could become very, very interesting.