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Feature: US Uses Annual Drug Certification Report to Attack Bolivia, Venezuela

The Bush administration released its annual "Presidential Determination on Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries" report Monday, and both the report itself and Bush administration spokesmen used the occasion to launch attacks on Bolivia and Venezuela. The attack on Bolivia is related to the shift away from the forced eradication of coca crops under the "zero cocaine, not zero coca" policy of President Evo Morales, but the attack on Venezuela, which is neither a major drug producing country nor unusual in the region in being used as a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine, appears to have little to do with its adherence to US drug policy goals and much to do with the increasingly adversarial relationship between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Bush administration.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/boliviancoca.jpg
Bolivian coca (source: US State Dept.)
Chavez and Morales are close allies in an emerging left-leaning, anti-imperialistic axis in Latin America. Bolivia announced this week it is accepting Venezuelan assistance to construct new military facilities near the Paraguayan border.

The list of major drug producing or trafficking nations remains unchanged from last year. Included are Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.

Only two nations -- Myanmar and Venezuela -- were determined to have "failed demonstrably" to meet their obligations under international drug control treaties. Myanmar has reduced opium production, but remains an isolated military dictatorship. Sanctions against Venezuela were nevertheless waived, because of a belief by the administration "programs to aid Venezuela's democratic institutions are vital to the national interests of the United States" (though many in the hemisphere have suspicions about what that really means since the administration's tacit support for an attempted coup against Chavez in April 2002 and because of where the money is going).

"Venezuela's importance as a transshipment point for drugs bound for the United States and Europe has continued to increase in the past 12 months, a situation both enabled and exploited by corrupt Venezuelan officials," press secretary Snow charged.

The Bush administration might have a little more traction with such charges if it did not single out Venezuela. Mexico, for instance, is not mentioned in the text of the annual report except in the list of major trafficking nations despite rampant corruption, drug trade-related violence at record levels, and a government response that is curiously supine. Nor is Guatemala mentioned, despite the fact that the head of its anti-drug agency, Adam Castillo, pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington just two weeks ago to conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the country.

"This is the same charade they go through every year," said Sanho Tree, head of the Institute for Policy Studies Drug Policy Project. "These are essentially political determinations." The waiver to continue funneling money to anti-Chavez groups is a clear sign of that, Tree said. "If they decertify Venezuela without the waiver, they can't funnel all that money through the so-called pro-democracy opposition," he told Drug War Chronicle.

The Venezuelan government, for its part, rejected its designation as a failed partner in the war on drugs and accused the US government of "politicizing" international anti-drug policy. In an official statement issued Monday, the government said, "Venezuela denounces the continued politicization of important bilateral issues by the US State Department. The Bush administration consciously continues to practice a policy of substituting facts by unfounded statements, driven by simple political differences, the explicit purpose of which is to isolate Venezuela."

The statement went on to note that Venezuela had seized more than 35,000 kilograms of drugs last year and that its anti-drug efforts had won international praise. In comments earlier this month, British officials praised Venezuela's "tremendous cooperation" in fighting drugs, while the French talked of "intense cooperation" and the Spanish said Venezuelan authorities "are efficient in registering and detaining individuals that could be transporting drugs."

The Venezuelan statement also carried an implicit threat. The Chavez government threw the DEA out of Venezuela last year amid accusations it was spying on the Venezuelan government, and since then, the two countries have been negotiating a new agreement allowing the agency to operate there. "Baseless accusations, such as those contained in the Bush administration's report, will not help finalize an agreement as important as this one," the statement warned.

While the Bush attack on Venezuela's anti-drug record stinks of global power politics, its criticism of Bolivia is based on more traditional US drug policy concerns. "My administration is concerned with the decline in Bolivian counternarcotics cooperation since October 2005," Bush said in the report. "Bolivia, the world's third largest producer of cocaine, has undertaken policies that have allowed the expansion of coca cultivation and slowed the pace of eradication until mid-year, when it picked up. The Government of Bolivia's (GOB) policy of 'zero cocaine, but not zero coca' has focused primarily on interdiction, to the near exclusion of its necessary complements, eradication and alternative development."

White House press secretary Tony Snow amplified those remarks at a Monday press conference. "Despite increased drug interdiction, Bolivia has undertaken policies that have allowed the expansion of coca cultivation and have significantly curtailed eradication," he said. Snow warned that the US government is waiting to see whether the Bolivian government will eradicate minimum acreages, make changes to Bolivian law desired by the US, and tightly control the sale of coca leaf. The US will review Bolivia's compliance with US drug policy goals in six months, he said.

The Bolivians responded with only slightly less asperity than the Venezuelans. "The administration of the United States has a mistaken reading with respect to Bolivian anti-drug policy," said government spokesman Alex Contreras in an official statement Monday. "Bolivia invites the United States to join the policy of zero cocaine and to recall that it is the principal producer of precursor chemicals to transform coca into cocaine. Also, it has the largest market of illegal drug consumers."

The Bolivian government will accomplish its goal of eradicating 5,000 hectares of coca this year, Contreras said, adding that that benchmark "will have been smoothly surpassed, not by the imposition of the US government, but by our own will and without using any tear gas, let alone repression and confrontations," a clear reference to the bloody conflicts between coca growers and former Bolivian governments that attempted to impose US-style forced eradication policies.

Voluntary eradication is indeed going on, said Kathryn Ledebur of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network, who questioned the Bush administration's strict timelines. "I find it ironic that forced eradication took nine months during the Banzer administration and now they want radical results in six months. No nation can comply with that," she told the Chronicle. "The real sticking point is the six-month deadline to eliminate farmers' personal coca plots. That could push the Bolivian government to the breaking point. This suggests the Bush administration has no real idea what should be done, but it wants a firm scolding on the record."

Ledebur also found irony in the US complaints about the lack of progress with alternative development. "That is funded and driven by the US," she pointed out.

Both Ledebur and Tree agreed that Bolivia is energetically tackling the cocaine trade. "The interdiction of cocaine is a concrete result the Bolivian government can point to," said Tree. "Coca does not equal cocaine, and until it does become cocaine, coca should be a domestic matter and not something on the US agenda. If Bolivia can successfully regulate where the coca goes, it should not be an issue. Evaluating Bolivia on how many hectares of coca it eradicates is a meaningless metric."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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