Latin America: Pro-Coca Upstart Poised to Win First Round of Peruvian Presidential Election 4/7/06

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With coca-growing one of the hottest sectors of Peru's moribund economy -- production jumped 40% last year, according to the United Nations -- an upstart former army officer who calls for the legalization of the coca crop is poised to win the first round of Peru's presidential election, set for Monday. If elected, Ollanta Humala would be the second openly pro-coca leader in the Andes, after neighboring Bolivia's Evo Morales.

coca seedlings
According to the latest poll by Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru, Humala's popularity is steadily rising, and he is currently the choice of 31% of voters. He has overtaken former front-runner Lourdes Flores Nano of the Popular Christian Party, who has 27%, and former President Alain Garcia of the American Revolutionary People's Allilance with 20%. Other polls show similar standings and trends.

But under Peruvian law, if no candidate wins a majority of the vote, a run-off vote will be had. Here, Humala's doesn't fare so well, with the Universidad Catolica poll showing Lourdes defeating him in a second round by a margin of 55%-45%. Either Flores Nano or Humala would win against Garcia in a run-off.

The polls could be undercounting Humala's strength, however. By all accounts, much of his base is in the peasantry, which -- lacking telephones or easy access for pollsters -- tends to be less likely to be polled.

The US and Peruvian governments officially back coca eradication, but that policy is floundering in the face of resistance by increasingly sophisticated coca grower unions and increased demand resulting from larger-scale eradication efforts in Colombia. The US has pumped at least $330 million into crop substitution programs, to little effect. Since 2003, Peru's capacity to produce cocaine has grown by 25% to an estimated 170 metric tons a year.

Given the way coca is woven into the history and culture of the Andes, none of the three major candidates is endorsing forced eradication, but Humala is clearly the most pro-coca. He has pledged to legalize all coca production, arguing that the coca leaf could be used for legal products, such as tea, toothpaste, and even as a food-stuff, and he has vowed to work to remove coca from the list of plants proscribed by the UN's anti-drug treaties.

"The solution to drug trafficking is to industrialize coca leaf products," said Humala on the campaign trial. "Inexplicably, the state has signed an accord that it stigmatizes coca leaf worldwide and we will denounce that, because eradicating coca would be like eradicating Machu Picchu. That crop is part of our cultural identity, so we cannot eradicate that plant, which is not malignant," he added.

Humala's position on coca is part of a broader, populist, anti-Peruvian elite campaign that has excited surprising support in recent months. But for the hundreds of thousands of Peruvians dependent on coca crops for a living, it is his position on the leaf -- which many Peruvians consider sacred -- that is critical.

"Ollanta Humala can help us, because this is a plant that gives us four harvests a year, it is our children's future," coca grower Walter Aquino, mayor of the remote town of San Antonio, standing among his shoulder-high coca trees, told Reuters.

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Issue #430 -- 4/7/06

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