Evo Morales burst onto the South American scene in the early 1990s as leader of a Bolivian peasant farmers' organization opposed to government policies based on the U.S.-sponsored war on drugs.
The farmers wanted to keep growing coca plants — the raw material for cocaine but also used for millennia as a traditional herbal remedy for the rigors of high-altitude life. The government — at U.S. insistence — wanted to eradicate the coca crop. The political boost Morales got from his venture into coca politics helped elect him president.
But drug-war politics differ from country to country. “In Colombia, being the leader of the coca-growers would never be your path to power,” says Adam Isacson, director of the Latin America demilitarization program at the liberal Center for International Policy. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe — who celebrates his closeness to President Bush and expanded coca eradication and military action against widely despised drug-trafficking guerrillas — was re-elected in May by a landslide 62 percent of the vote.
Bolivia, on the other hand, has a history of suspicion of U.S. policies. And the indigenous tradition of coca-leaf consumption runs stronger in Bolivia than in Colombia. Indeed, Bolivians who grow coca — cocaleros — enjoy a degree of legal protection, as do the leaves, which offer roughly the same stimulant buzz as a cup of coffee.
Even Pope John Paul II conferred what amounted to a papal blessing on coca in 1988, when he drank coca-leaf tea before his plane landed in La Paz, the 13,000-foot-high capital.
Also in 1988, Bolivia's congress responded to American pressure on coca cultivation. With U.S. cocaine use booming and Bolivia the center of the illegal cocaine trade, President George H. W. Bush wanted to eradicate the Bolivian crop. But eradication was out of the question, so lawmakers decreed that 30,000 acres could be dedicated to coca cultivation; additional coca acreage was marked for destruction.
By 1995, however, U.S. officials acknowledged that coca cultivation was trending upward. So Washington told Bolivia to destroy 4,320 acres or forfeit at least $87 million in aid.
Popular discontent with Washington's interference in Bolivian affairs lifted Morales to the forefront of political life and, eventually, to a congressional seat. “We are not going to stop growing coca,” he said in 2001. “We will defend ourselves from this government, which has decided to blindly obey the orders of Washington with no thought given to its own citizens.”
For years, pro-U.S. politicians such as President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada insisted that Morales and his allies — by suggesting that coca farmers were merely following ancestral traditions — were distorting reality. In fact, many coca cultivators were working hand-in-glove with cocaine processors, the politicians said.
Bolivian President Evo Morales (Getty Images/Gerard Cerles)
“These aren't just poor innocent farmers,” Sánchez de Lozada said in 1995.
When Morales was running in the 2002 presidential election, U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha threatened that U.S. aid might be cut off if Bolivians chose Morales. “The Bolivian electorate must consider the consequences of choosing leaders somehow connected with drug trafficking and terrorism,” Rocha said.
Morales' support shot from 4 percent to about 21 percent, and he came in second — paving the way for his victory three years later.
In the early months of his administration, there was little warming between Morales and the Bush administration. “The new . . . Morales administration in Bolivia has displayed a lackluster commitment to coca reduction,” Anne W. Patterson, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement, told the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee in March.
Morales says he can protect cocaleros while cracking down on cocaine traffickers, and critics of the drug war agree. “The international community should give the Bolivian government the breathing room it needs . . . to implement the new approach,” wrote two drug-war critics in June.