Bolivia’s cocaine conundrum

Last week, a court in the United States sentenced  a retired Bolivian military officer, Rene Sanabria, to fourteen years in prison for masterminding a drug-trafficking network that exported cocaine manufactured in Bolivia to Miami. The General had headed the Bolivian Interior Ministry’s FELCN counter narcotics agency, and at the time of his arrest in Panama he was serving Chief of the Interior Ministry’s Centre for Intelligence and Information Gathering.

General Sanabria is one of a host of security officials from the major cocaine producers in the hemisphere who have sought to enrich themselves by exploiting their roles in state-run anti-drugs operations. Bolivia, for a host of reasons, provides ample opportunity for such pursuits.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America; it is also one of the three major producers of cocaine in the hemisphere. It is the Bolivian tradition of coca leaf cultivation, however, that cements its contemporary links with the international cocaine trade and renders the country uniquely vulnerable to the opportunistic pursuits of men like General Sanabria.

Bolivia is poor largely because its huge deposits of natural gas have done far more to enrich outside investors than to raise the standard of living of its people. In 2003, former Bolivian President, Gonzalo Sanchez Lozada was forced to resign and seek refuge in the United States after a popular uprising known as ‘the gas wars’ erupted over his handling of the award of contracts for natural gas exploitation. With few alternative economic avenues open to them, Bolivian farmers have clung to the only option they know, the coca leaf, the primary raw material in the manufacture of cocaine.

Coca leaf production and use in Bolivia is a complex issue. The cultivation of the leaf goes back several centuries, some literature suggesting as far back as 3000 bc. To Bolivians the coca leaf is their hoja sagrada or holy leaf, a commonplace stimulant and a highly-valued natural medicine in healing rituals. Ordinary Bolivians openly indulge in a practice known as acuillio, the chewing of the coca leaf in much the same fashion as tobacco is chewed.

The cultivation of the coca leaf is legal in Bolivia. It is the country’s most important agricultural crop. Bolivia’s serving President, Evo Morales, an indigenous Indian once led a coca growers union and it was his advocacy as a labour leader that provided a path to the presidency.

Bolivia is one of several countries in South America – Peru, Chile and Argentina being the others – where the restricted cultivation, sale and possession of coca leaves is legal though cocaine is illegal. President Morales, whose support for coca leaf cultivation is underpinned by the argument that “coca is not cocaine” will be remembered for his theatrical brandishing of a coca leaf at the United Nations General Assembly in 2006. He has also articulated the value-added potential of the coca leaf in the manufacture of herbal teas and confectionary, among other products. On the other hand President Morales says that he is committed to conventional methods of cocaine interdiction as well as a crackdown on drug traffickers.

What makes President Morales’ support for controlled coca leaf cultivation seem tenuous to the United States, is that the lines between legal and illegal coca production in his country are blurred. That apart, there is really no clarity as to how much of the coca produced in Bolivia is sold legally or used for traditional purposes, and how much is diverted to the cocaine industry. What is not in doubt is that President Morales’ high-sounding and noble ambitions for the coca leaf industry notwithstanding, the most lucrative value-added product derived from the leaf is cocaine; and the Bolivian coca leaf farmers are well aware of that.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has not bought into President Morales’ altruism on the coca leaf issue and the volume of cocaine now being produced and exported into Miami from Bolivia suggests that they have a point. President Morales, having initially agreed to a DEA presence in Bolivia sent the agents packing in 2008; their zealous counter-narcotics posture apparently threatened to eclipse the legitimacy of traditional coca farmers who are very much a part of the President’s political constituency.

An avowed socialist, President Morales has sought to tender an ideological justification for the expulsion of the DEA agents, describing them as instruments used by Washington “to blackmail those countries who don’t comply with imperialism and capitalism.” The point about the proliferation of cocaine production in Bolivia, however, remains a valid one.

The United States has more or less passed a damning verdict on what it says is the Morales administration’s weak anti-narcotics policy. That, however, appears to have done little to impact on the President’s popularity. The production of the coca leaf is deeply rooted in Bolivian society.

Washington’s seemingly retaliatory measure of reducing aid level to Bolivia has opened the door to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez who, apart from having become a major aid donor to Bolivia, appears to be functioning as a kind of ideological mentor to the Bolivian President.

Bolivia’s coca leaf conundrum which repeats itself elsewhere in South America illustrates some of the complex challenges associated with the fight against the powerful global narcotics industry. Cocaine production thrives in Bolivia not only because of the greed and power of the drug lords and their cartels and the opportunistic pursuits of men like General Sanabria, but for reasons that have to do with cultural traditions and in cases like Bolivia’s, poverty and the absence of alternatives.

Articulating the reality should not be seen as an argument for ignoring the nexus between the cultivation of the coca leaf and the manufacture of its illegal and deadly by-product. It is, however, a challenge to the international community to fashion new approaches to the fight against drugs that takes account of circumstances like those that exist in Bolivia.

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