Bolivia's future leader pledges to control coca

Bolivia’s future president Evo Morales, a coca producer under pressure to crack down on cocaine, has pledged to keep controls on coca but says he will study expanding the area where it can be legally grown.

Morales on Tuesday also called on the United States to work with him to develop better ways of ending drug trafficking while preserving the traditional market for coca in his Andean nation, where people have chewed the plant to stave off hunger or used it as a medicine for thousands of years.

“There won’t be free cultivation of the coca leaf,” vowed Morales, who still has his own coca plot and came to prominence leading fellow growers—cocaleros—in fighting US-backed efforts to eradicate coca in Bolivia, the number-three supplier of cocaine to the US after Colombia and Peru.

Morales’s wide victory margin in Sunday’s election virtually assures that Congress will declare him president in January even if he falls shy of the majority needed to win outright in the eight-man race.

Morales had slightly more than 50% on Tuesday with half the vote still uncounted, according to official results. The outgoing administration said it was preparing to hand over power to him.

A leftist Aymara Indian who grew up in poverty, herding llamas and raising potatoes in Bolivia’s arid highlands, Morales migrated to the coca-growing region of Chapare, where many otherwise impoverished farmers depend on small plots of the crop to help their families survive.

The US-led war on drugs inadvertently helped bring Morales to power. The battle against coca eradication that he led helped mobilise Indian organisations already angered by continuing poverty and political domination by a rich elite, feeding a broader political movement.

Indians are a majority of Bolivia’s 8,5-million people, but never in its 180-year history has the country had an Indian president.

Legal consumption

Acting increasingly like the president-elect, Morales told a news conference on Tuesday that his government will study whether hectare limits should be increased to satisfy legal consumption.

Current laws permit coca cultivation in 12 000ha of the Yungas valley and 3 200ha in the Chapare region.
All coca was illegal in the Chapare until former president Carlos Mesa compromised with protesting farmers.

But past Bolivian administrations and the US government are convinced that an increasing amount of the crop is being turned into drugs. Bolivia may have produced up to 107 tonnes of cocaine last year, up 35% from 2003, according to the latest United Nations World Drug Report.

US officials so far have taken a cautious approach to the man who had described himself as their “nightmare”.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a CNN interview on Monday that relations with Bolivia will be determined by the “behaviour” of the new government in La Paz.

“We have good relations with people across the political spectrum in Latin America,” Rice noted—though two of Morales’s allies, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, do not fall on that spectrum.

Republican Congressman Mark Souder, the chairperson of the US House Drug Policy Subcommittee, said he hopes the nations can work together “to increase economic opportunities for all Bolivians as well as continue to combat the scourge of cocaine”.

“Morales won on a populist campaign of inclusiveness for all Bolivians. I believe that his defence of traditional coca growers represents an effort to assert his independence and to stand up for indigenous people’s rights, and that it does not mean that he would allow Bolivia to be taken over by international drug-trafficking syndicates,” Souder said.

No trafficking

Morales has described his policy as “zero cocaine and zero drug trafficking, but not zero coca or zero cocaleros” and says he’s ready, in principle, to work with US officials.

A former US ambassador to Bolivia, Robert Gelbard Morales’s real challenge will be using force to follow through on his pledge of no drug trafficking.

“It’s very, very likely there’s going to be a move by trafficking cartels to try to increase their capabilities” in Bolivia. “The expectations clearly will be that there will be much more room for manoeuvre on the part not just of the coca farmers, but on the part of trafficking organisations.”

But Morales and supporters insist that the coca leaves they sell in local marketplaces goes for legitimate ends.

People in the Andean highlands have chewed coca leaf to stave off hunger and work up energy, used it in religious ceremonies and boiled it into medicinal tea. It’s sold legally in supermarkets throughout Bolivia and Peru, and is served as tea in cafés.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writer Bill Cormier contributed to this report

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