Taking the Side of The Coca Farmer

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A bounty of leaves at a coca market in La Paz

To understand why Evo Morales has come within a llama's hair of being President of Bolivia — and why his formidable political power is giving U.S. officials fits — pay attention when he and his top advisers open their mouths. That is, see what they're chewing: coca leaves, treasured by Andean Indians like Morales as a sacred tonic and as their most lucrative cash crop but better known to Americans as the raw material of cocaine. Over the past five years, the U.S. has got Bolivia to uproot almost all of its coca shrubs — only to see Morales, 42, and his left-wing Movement to Socialism engineer an astonishing protest this year that could force Bolivia's next government to let the plants flourish again. "The coca leaf," says Morales, whose party took the second largest bloc of seats in parliamentary elections in June, "is our new national flag."

To the dismay of the Bush Administration, it's a banner waving over a large swath of South America. Coca eradication is the linchpin of Washington's antidrug strategy. The widening revolt against it is the loudest sign yet of a new resentment toward the U.S. in Latin America, where free-market reforms pushed by Washington have left much of the region's 500 million people poorer. A former parliamentary Deputy from Bolivia's central coca-growing region, Morales in the past was often dismissed as a radical relic in the land where Che Guevara died. But today he's strong enough to have made it into this week's presidential runoff vote in the new parliament, facing front runner Gonzalo Sanchez, a former President. More than that, Evo-speak--"The drug war is just a U.S. excuse to control our countries"--resonates beyond Bolivia's borders. Next door in Peru, irate coca farmers have successfully pressured the government to suspend eradication. In Colombia, the coca crop has grown fivefold in five years, to more than 400,000 acres, despite almost $1 billion in U.S. eradication funds. Authorities now say they will spray only "industrial-size" coca fields and not those of smaller farmers, who are, of course, the voters. If Morales can thwart the U.S. in Bolivia — South America's poorest nation but Washington's eradication showcase — it means the elimination effort has been a washout.

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The Evo phenomenon is partly a result of what Latin American critics call Washington's anti-coca "fundamentalism"--a heavy-handedness that seems to blame the remote cocaleros, or coca farmers, more than the addictive appetites of Americans. A key sore point was last year's creation of a special U.S.-funded Bolivian army unit to enforce eradication. "The army soldiers come to my house and shout, 'You b_______ Indian coca sellers!'" says Maria Luz Gomez, 32, a cocalera in Morales' home state of Cochabamba. "But without the coca, we can't have a life here." The special unit has been accused in numerous killings of cocalero leaders in Cochabamba, most notoriously Casimiro Huanca, who witnesses say was shot in the back by soldiers during a protest last December. According to U.S. and Bolivian officials, the special unit will be dissolved next month. The cocaleros — who are guilty themselves of killing soldiers in recent clashes — accuse the U.S. embassy in La Paz of lobbying behind the scenes with parliamentary leaders to get Morales kicked out of the assembly for his pro-coca activism, a charge the embassy denies. The growers were outraged when the U.S. ambassador, Manuel Rocha, warned that a Morales victory would mean a drastic reduction in U.S. economic aid to Bolivia, now $156 million a year. Morales impishly thanked Rocha: the perception of Yanqui meddling helped catapult his presidential candidacy.

The U.S. rightfully insists that it works hard to provide cocaleros with alternative crops like bananas and coffee. But the depressed markets for those goods mean farmers earn sometimes as little as one-tenth of what they would with coca, which produces three to four harvests a year. Of course, coca farming is not — as Morales and the growers would have it — an entirely innocuous affair. Even though the cocaleros don't turn coca leaves into cocaine — that's done by the drug cartels — they know that the bulk of the crop goes not toward its traditional uses as an anesthetic and a salubrious chew but into making the illegal drug. In a recent speech on Morales' home turf, Ambassador Rocha blasted the "lie that coca cultivation is an innocent endeavor to the world." The cocaleros' probity is debatable, but while Morales is chewing up Bolivian politics, their clout is unquestionable.