Bolivia’s Catch-22 drug war

Bolivia is heavily dependent on U.S. aid and American trading rights.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s new president, is doing just what the United States expects of a democratically elected leader: Listen and respond to the needs of the Bolivian coca farmers who voted him into office. Morales pledged to end the hated U.S.-backed coca eradication program that destroys thousands of acres of coca and the livelihood of hundreds of Bolivian coca farmers each year. But to do so will lead Bolivia into a drug war trap, a Catch-22 set by none other than the United States.

For hundreds of years Bolivians have made tea with coca leaves, chewed them to fend off fatigue and used coca for religious and medical purposes. Bolivian farmers legally can grow coca on 29,600 acres for these traditional uses. However, illegal coca crops headed for the cocaine market are grown on another 31,000 acres. Morales is strongly committed to enforcing tough anti-cocaine laws and has said, “There will not be zero coca, but there will be zero cocaine” in Bolivia. He wants to end the political and social turmoil stirred up by the U.S.-backed search-and-destroy tactics used to eradicate coca, a traditional crop with strong symbolic meanings among the people. Instead, he wants to use economic development, crop substitution and financial incentives to entice farmers to voluntarily stop growing coca beyond what is needed for traditional uses.

Since 1997 the United States has spent about $2 on coca eradication and drug interdiction in Bolivia for every $1 spent on alternative employment of coca farmers. Morales simply wants to reverse this spending trend and implement a coca management program that makes sense for Bolivian farmers, and one that offers farmers income alternatives, not economic ruin as has often been the case in the past. Here’s the Catch-22: Bolivia, one of the poorest South American countries, is heavily dependent on U.S. aid and American trading rights. If Bolivia does not fully cooperate with the U.S.-led drug war, a 1986 act of the U.S. Congress calls for ending foreign aid to Bolivia and closing its access to U.S. markets.

How can Washington help Mr. Morales out of this box? One option is to replace the failed search-and-destroy strategy with a U.S.-style coca subsidy program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department would treat excess coca production as a land use problem and prescribe financial incentives and technical support. The department’s motto, “Why use force when Yankee greenbacks can do the job?” relies on an army of Washington check-writers to lure farmers away from the unwanted crops ‘ Morales could easily endorse this.

In the 1990s the United States paid Bolivian farmers as much as $1,000 for every acre of coca voluntarily abandoned, but the plan failed. Subsidy payments were less than the farmers’ coca crop incomes, and the government did not prevent farmers from taking the cash and planting a new coca crop elsewhere. The department, with Morales’ support, can overcome these problems. The secret? Pay the full value of the coca crop we are asking farmers to forego.

If Bolivia has 4,500 illegal coca farms averaging seven acres each and raising four crops per year, and if an acre produces $400 worth of coca per crop, the department would pay each farmer $11,200 a year to idle his land, or at least not to grow coca. This is more than 12 times Bolivia’s $900 per capita annual income, meaning these farmers can get rich ‘ like American farmers ‘ doing something we want them to do or, for that matter, doing nothing at all.

Total subsidy payments would be about $50 million a year ‘ a lot less than the $90 million American taxpayers spent in Bolivia in 2005 for coca eradication, drug interdiction and alternative development programs.

How about it, President Morales?

Ronald Fraser writes for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Please send comments to [email protected]