Bolivian Aymara leader challenges United States

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To the Indian peoples of the Andes, coca is a sacred medicine. This is ostensibly true in Bolivia, where coca tea is highly recommended to provide energy at high altitudes. The coca plant is not "a drug," is not synthetic, is not "cocaine." The Quechua and Aymara and other Native nations use coca in ceremony. It is good for women especially, for headaches and menstrual pain. Coca, in Bolivia, is not regarded by the Indian campesinos as something evil, not in the way Drug War advocates would have us think.

U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia V. Manuel Rocha found that out in spades when on June 26 he entered the fray of Bolivian politics by condemning Aymara Indian candidate Evo Morales, an advocate for the Bolivian peasantry that still grows and uses coca. Rocha warned Bolivian voters that, "If you elect those who want Bolivia to be a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of U.S. assistance to Bolivia."

The speech, which was severely criticized, was also widely credited with generating a huge boost of more than ten points for Morales, who gained over 20 percent of the vote in a three-way presidential race and whose party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), won six seats in the 27-member Senate. Morales has called Rocha his "campaign chief." Morales came in second and trailed the winner by less than two percent of the national vote.

Morales' surprise showing has electrified Bolivian politics. Not only did it project an Indian party to national politics for the first time in the country's history, it made obvious the huge support the coca crop enjoys among Bolivia's impoverished but quite traditional Indian population, which is a majority in this country of 8.3 million people. His remarkable showing in the election is seen as a strong signal on behalf of the poorest people, who have been economically crushed by the free-market reforms imposed on the country in conjunction with the Drug War's eradication campaign. Morales is now in a position to challenge Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the leading candidate and almost certainly next president, for the leadership of the National Congress. He has challenged Sanchez to a national debate and appears to have a good deal of political momentum.

To Morales and an increasing number of Latin American politicians, including the conservative Mexican President Vicente Fox, America should concentrate on eradicating the insatiable cocaine consumption of North Americans. In their estimation, this insatiable market for the drug is most responsible for the huge international trade marked for extinction by law enforcement strategies. In Bolivia and other Andean countries that persecution focuses on eradicating the traditional coca crop that is culturally interwoven and now economically tied to the Native people.

The Bolivian coca eradication efforts have been intense. They are touted as a success in destroying more than 90,000 acres of coca cultivation and are clearly highly unpopular. In effect, the enforcement effort has militarized large portions of the country and resulted in the criminalization of thousands of impoverished Indian people. While the U.S. campaign has vigorously pushed criminal penalties, it has failed to deliver on its promise to open its markets to Bolivian textiles and farm products.

The Bolivian Indian cocaleros assert that they are paying the brunt of the price for America's bad habits. They are organizing politically against the condition. Similar movements are developing in Peru, Colombia and elsewhere. In Bolivia, after the strong showing by Morales, all politicians are now watchful of their position on this very tender issue. And Morales is just getting started. His loud opposition to the export of Bolivian fuel products, including natural gas, which are non-renewable, has sparked great passion inside the country and great concern outside the country.

American global policy assertions that can ring true within the United States have a way of bogging down in the minds and hearts of other populations. Cultural imperatives and economic destitution need to be fully considered by American policymakers. The nature and depth of the social misery in other countries and how they are often worsened by policies that sound reasonable from a North American perspective must be understood. Ask Ambassador Rocha, whose threats to a fed-up population backfired, helping to introduce increasingly radical approaches to a very desperate situation.