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Coca Czar Protests US War on Drugs


If the cold war is over, nobody has told Bolivian union leader Evo Morales.

Mr. Morales, Bolivia's coca czar who has led five growers' unions since 1994, calls US efforts to eradicate the leaf "Yankee imperialism" and ends most rallies with his war cry: "Long Live Coca, Death to the Gringos."

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"He comes from a viewpoint completely opposite of ours," says US Ambassador Curtis Kamman. "He stands for a crop whose only use is to make cocaine."

Mr. Morales insists that growing coca, a crop traditionally used by Andean Indians for religious and medicinal purposes, is a matter of national sovereignty. He claims the US Drug Enforcement Agency controls the Chapar, a tropical lowland north of the nation's third-largest city, Cochabamba, and home to about 100,000 coca union members.

In the past, Morales has called on union members to block roads and march in protest to La Paz, Bolivia's capital. He has been jailed three times and has three criminal cases pending against him for sedition and defamation.

To the consternation of Bolivia's government, the cocalero leader has become a favorite in Europe, where he is often feted and asked to speak before politicians and nongovernment agencies. In 1995, European groups such as the Green Party and the Luxemburg parliament nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, according to local press reports.

"Evo Morales has been paraded around the world as an indigenous leader beat up by the US government," says Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivia expert at Florida International University in Miami. "His image transcends the Chapar."

His critics say that most coca used for traditional purposes comes from the Yungas region near the nation's capital of La Paz, while leaf used as the raw material for cocaine is exclusively from the Chapar.

Not surprisingly, honoring Morales as a foreign dignitary especially galls US officials, who see him as a nemesis who has helped turn Bolivia into the world's third-largest producer of coca leaf and cocaine. Bolivia is the largest recipient of US antinarcotics aid, having received about $1 billion since 1983.

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Moreover, US officials suspect his trips abroad are funded by drug traffickers. "If I were receiving drug money," Morales replies vehemently, "I would be jailed within 24 hours."

Morales, a former baker and trumpet player, concedes that up to 60 percent of Chapar coca goes to drug traffickers but says farmers have no other choice for survival. Morales says he agrees with the US program of crop substitution but argues that it's underfunded and "just not working and until it does, campesinos [peasants] have to make a living."

Since 1983, the US has poured $175 million into the Chapar to build infrastructure and introduce such substitute crops as pineapple and palm hearts. While the area remains poor, it is much better off than most regions that have yet to receive any development aid. Bolivia is South America's poorest nation with some 70 percent of its 7 million inhabitants living in poverty.

Over the past five years, US officials claim the substitution program has doubled the number of acreage dedicated to legal crops from 98,000 acres to 197,000 acres while coca has remained stable at 86,000 acres.

"While we haven't succeeded in cutting back coca production, we have significantly added to legal crops," Mr. Kamman says. "The balance is shifting."

Morales, however, complains that there are not enough guaranteed markets for new crops, that the Bolivian government hasn't fulfilled its promises to develop the region, and that farmers lack investment funds. Coca, on the other hand, has a guaranteed market, needs little capital, is easy to grow, and can yield four harvests a year.

The union leader also argues that the drug trade has been boosted by US-backed austerity measures in Bolivia that have caused thousands of workers to lose their jobs. Many cocaleros are former tin miners - laid off when mines shut down in the mid-1980s - who wound up in the Chapar looking for work.

"Until we can make a decent living, we won't let the government take our crops by force," says ex-miner and coca grower Jose Torres.

Mr. Torres is referring to US-trained antidrug forces known as the Mobile Rural Patrol Unit (UMOPAR) and its intensified campaign to destroy coca plants. Both Bolivian and US human rights organizations have charged UMOPAR with committing widespread human rights violations, including unlawful arrests, illegal searches, arbitrary confiscations, and excessive force. In 1995, six peasants were killed and 14 wounded in clashes with police, according to the Cochabamba chapter of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights.

"If the government continues to attack," warns Morales, "there could be civil war."

Bolivian and American officials, on the other hand, scoff at such remarks and say human rights violations have been greatly exaggerated. According to the Bolivian government, disciplinary action against abusive police has been taken and most peasants were killed in clashes organized by the growers' unions.

However, a US human rights group blames the United States. "Unfortunately, while demanding throughout 1995 that Bolivia move vigorously with its eradication program, the United States failed to make the effective protection of human rights a cornerstone of US counternarcotics support," said a May report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch/Americas.

In bilateral agreements, Bolivia has agreed to eradicate 12,000 to 19,000 acres of coca per year. If the government doesn't comply with the quota, it could lose US certification, which would mean a suspension of foreign aid and approval of funds from international agencies such as the World Bank.

At union headquarters in Cochabamba, Morales is making final preparations for yet another protest march. In an office decorated with a poster of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary killed trying to foment revolution in Bolivia in 1967, Morales barks out orders to his staff.

"When we mobilize, we win," he says. "When we sit down to negotiate with the government, we lose."

Some political observers say Morales' influence is waning and point to the thousands of campesinos who have switched to substitute crops in recent years without union permission.

Yet few would count him out as a political strongman. Last year, Morales launched a new party called the Assembly for the Sovereignty of the People to "fill Congress with campesinos."

To date, the ASP has been blocked by government red tape from running a slate of candidates in the last municipal elections. But to show their potential political force, the cocaleros joined an established regional party and won several elections in the Cochabamba area.

"This has the government shaking," says Federico Aguil, a Jesuit priest who heads the Cochabamba Permanent Assembly for Human Rights.

"In the future, Evo could play two political cards," says La Paz-based political analyst Carlos Toranzo, "one in the street and another in parliament."

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