LA PAZ, Bolivia - As former coca grower Evo Morales prepares to take the oath of office as Bolivia's new president today, a battle over U.S.-funded antidrug efforts in this impoverished, cocaine-producing country is taking shape.
Morales has promised to fight production of the drug but protect the cultivation of its main ingredient, the coca leaf, which traditionally is chewed to increase stamina and suppress hunger in the high-altitude Andean country.
Coca is widely grown in Bolivia, even though it is illegal in most of the country. Morales, 46, a former leader of the coca-growers union, promised during the campaign that he would decriminalize coca growing. "We say no to 'zero coca,' but we are promoting 'zero cocaine,'" Morales said Thursday. "We are going to try to interdict the narco-traffickers."
End to cooperation One of Morales' top coca advisers, Dionicio Nunez, goes further, saying the new government will likely end cooperation with U.S. antidrug forces, which have been in the country since the late 1980s.
Such a move could endanger about $150 million in annual U.S. foreign and antidrug aid to Bolivia, much of it contingent on U.S. officials certifying that the country is doing its part to stop cocaine production.
Also at stake is Bolivia's application for $598 million in aid from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account, which is intended to help needy countries that the U.S. government thinks are on the right developmental path.
"We are going to ask the United States to leave," said Nunez, a former congressman with Morales' Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism) party and a leader of the country's coca growers. "We are no longer going to accept the requirements that the United States has placed on us."
The new government also will likely end the forced eradication of coca leaf, Nunez said. The program has been carried out largely in the tropical Chapare lowlands.
Cautious U.S. approach Although coca is a pressing U.S. concern in Bolivia, American officials have said that they will wait until after Morales acts. The Aymara Indian, who will be Bolivia's first indigenous president, also has confronted the United States on trade and management of its natural gas resources.
The cause of coca, which growers call "the sacred leaf," is one of survival, despite U.S. efforts to promote other crops, such as bananas and palm hearts, in the Chapare, said farmer Eulalio Camacho Zuares.
"Many will starve without coca," Camacho Zuares said. "There will be no peace without coca."
The country is the world's third biggest producer of coca, behind Colombia and Peru, with about 65,500 acres under cultivation, according to 2005 U.S. estimates. Coca production grew by nearly 8 percent from 2004 to 2005.
Some U.S. experts are skeptical that Morales will fight drug production because of his longtime ties to coca growers, who prize the crop for its high market prices.
"Let's give [Morales] the benefit of the doubt and say coca growers are coca growers and have no ties to narco-trafficking. That still doesn't account for the free flow of drugs that's crossing northern Bolivia and a whole series of organized crimes taking place in the region," said Eduardo Gamarra, the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami.
Bolivian government officials long have charged that growers know how coca leaf is used to produce cocaine in regions such as the Chapare, even if they are not producing the drug themselves.
Last year, Bolivian antidrug police discovered more than 4,000 maceration pits, where coca leaf is mixed with sulfuric acid and other chemicals and stomped into paste, the first step in cocaine production. Most of the pits were found in remote spots of the Chapare.
Bolivian police also seized more than 12 tons of cocaine last year, mostly in the Chapare, a 36 percent increase from the year before.
"There are a lot of factories in the jungle, and lots of small groups involved in producing cocaine," said Gen. Luis Caballero, the head of Bolivia's antidrug forces. Nunez rejected such criticisms, saying coca growers were producing only enough of the crop to chew and brew as tea.
"The government has always accused us of being narco-traffickers, but it has never been proved," he said. "We are not traffickers. We are peasants."
Activist Kathryn Ledebur of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network said U.S. anti-coca efforts, which include advising Bolivian troops and supplying helicopters and aircraft, have failed and should be revised.
"They have not reduced coca cultivation and only created tons of social conflict," she said.
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