Bolivia's future president pledges to control coca production
LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Bolivia's soon-to-be president, Evo Morales, a coca farmer under pressure to crack down on cocaine, pledged Tuesday to keep controls on coca but said he will study expanding the area where it can be legally grown.
Morales 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 and used it as a medicine for thousands of years.
"There won't be free cultivation of the coca leaf," said Morales, who still has his own coca plot and came to prominence leading fellow growers -- "cocaleros" -- in fighting U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca in Bolivia, the No. 3 supplier of cocaine to the United States after Colombia and Peru.
Morales' apparently 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. And a majority win appears increasingly likely, since Morales already had slightly more than 50 percent Tuesday with half the vote -- including much of his rural support -- still uncounted, according to official results. His opponents have conceded and 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.
The U.S.-led war on drugs inadvertently helped bring Morales to power. The battle against coca eradication that he led helped mobilize Indian organizations 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.
Acting increasingly like the president-elect, Morales said Tuesday that his government would study whether acreage limits should be increased to satisfy legal consumption.
Current laws permit coca cultivation in 29,000 acres of the Yungas valley and a legally dubious accord struck by President Carlos Mesa in a compromise with protesting farmers allowed 7,900 acres to be cultivated in the Chapare.
But past Bolivian administrations and the U.S. government are convinced that an increasing amount of the crop is being turned into drugs. Bolivia, the world's No. 3 coca grower, may have produced up to 118 tons of cocaine last year, up 35 percent from 2003, according to the latest U.N. World Drug Report.
U.S. officials so far have taken a cautious approach to the man who had described himself as their "nightmare."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN on Monday that relations with Bolivia will be determined by the "behavior" of the new government in La Paz.
"We have good relations with people across the political spectrum in Latin America," Rice said. She did not mention two of Morales' allies, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, with whom the United States has had increasingly tense dealings.
Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said that while Bolivia may produce "more coca for local consumption," Morales may also cooperate "in his own way, so as not to hurt not just the United States, but the rest of the world."
Morales has described his policy as "zero cocaine and zero drug trafficking, but not zero coca or zero cocaleros," and says he is ready, in principle, to work with U.S. officials.
A former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Robert Gelbard, said Morales' real challenge will be using force to follow through on his pledge to curb 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 maneuver on the part not just of the coca farmers, but on the part of trafficking organizations," Gelbard said.
But Morales and supporters insist that the coca leaves they sell in local marketplaces go for legitimate ends.
People in the Andean highlands have chewed coca leaf to suppress appetite and work up energy, used it in religious ceremonies and boiled it into medicinal tea. It is sold legally in supermarkets throughout Bolivia and Peru, and is served as tea in cafes.
Julio Atto, a 56-year-old worker at La Paz's coca market, said that his meager income from coca allowed him to put his children through college.
"The poor don't have money, the drug traffickers have dollars," Atto said as Indian women in bowler hats, stooping under 25-kilogram bags of coca, stood in line before scales saying "Made in the U.S.A."