VILLA TUNARI, Bolivia – Just weeks ago, Bolivian army troops swooped down on Seberino Marquina’s farm and, one by one, ripped his coca bushes from the ground.
“The commander said, ‘Cut this,’ and they did,” Marquina, 54, said on his small piece of the Chapare, a coca-growing region the size of New Jersey in central Bolivia. But after President Evo Morales’s inauguration on Jan. 22, the troops assigned to eradicate coca leaves as part of the U.S.-financed war on drugs instead spend their days lolling at isolated roadside bases, trying to keep cool under the blazing sun.
“We’re waiting for orders from the president,” said Capt. César Cautin, the commander of a group of 60 soldiers.
Marquina is also waiting, hoping that the new president will let him add to the flourishing crop of coca plants the soldiers missed, on the other side of the creek that runs through his 24-acre farm.
Just how likely that is remains surprisingly unclear.
Morales, 46, an Aymara Indian who grew up in poverty in the highlands and became a coca grower in this verdant jungle region, has not provided many details on his policy except to say that his government will “depenalize” coca cultivation but show zero tolerance toward trafficking: In other words, “yes to coca, no to cocaine.”
He has long opposed American eradication efforts and championed the coca leaf, which without significant processing has no mind-altering effects and is chewed here to mitigate hunger and increase stamina. He has pledged to push foreign governments to open their markets to the many legal products that can be made from coca, like soap, shampoo, toothpaste and flour.
He also wants to open markets to coca tea, which is legal and popular in the Andes.
All forms of coca, which has a mild stimulating effect, have been blacklisted by the United Nations since 1961.
Morales has also said that 23,000 farmers in the Chapare could continue to plant coca on a third of an acre of their land, as permitted under a 2004 agreement with Carlos Mesa, then the president, that was never endorsed by Washington.
He is waiting for the results of a study financed by the European Union to determine just how much coca Bolivians need for traditional, legal uses, before deciding whether coca cultivation could increase.
To maintain good international relations and attract investors, however, Morales must find a way to reassure foreign governments and investors that Bolivia will control trafficking – particularly neighbors like Brazil, which is, after the United States, the world’s second-largest consumer of cocaine, and the United States, which spends up to $1 billion a year to battle cocaine in the Andes.
As a start, Morales named Felipe Caceres, a former mayor in the Chapare and a small-time coca farmer, to the new post of vice minister of coca, to, in essence, oversee the fight against trafficking, an appointment that Washington supported.
The American government, which for several administrations has contended that only aggressive eradication and interdiction will control trafficking, scoffs at Morales’ “yes to coca, no to cocaine” stance.
“This idea that he’s going to go after traffickers but letting the coca bloom is tough seeing as workable,” said a senior congressional aide in Washington who helps shape anti-drug policy, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give statements. “It’s a naive, pie-in-the-sky approach to let the flower bloom but interdict the bouquet.”
American policy makers fear that the progress made against coca in Colombia – where cultivation has been significantly reduced – could be offset by a burst of cultivation in Bolivia, and an accompanying surge in smuggling.
There are now an estimated 65,400 acres of coca being cultivated in Bolivia, nearly half of it grown legally for traditional uses.
American officials are deeply concerned that a central part of their expensive Andean campaign – eradication – has been suspended in Bolivia. The U.S. ambassador, David N. Greenlee, is carrying out an understated policy of not publicly challenging the government, but he lamented the situation.
“There is no eradication, and at this moment, that’s my concern,” he said recently before meeting with the new foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, who has called coca “a sacred leaf.”
Bolivia, which many in Washington see as a symbol of success in the war on drugs, was a pariah nation just 15 years ago, with 123,000 acres of coca under cultivation.
In 1988, the country criminalized coca, American-sponsored eradication began and production fell to a low of 48,000 acres in 2000.
Bolivia went from being the No.2 producer of coca, shipping much of its cocaine to the United States, to a distant third after Colombia and Peru, with most of the drug headed to Brazil.
By Juan Forero
The New York Times