Coca Decriminalization in Debate
The U.S. Pressures Bolivia While the Government and Coca Growers Hold Talks
By Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Narco News South American Bureau Chief
March 17, 2004
COCHABAMBA, MARCH 17, 2004: Since October of 2003, Bolivia, the country located in the heart of the Latin American continent, has enjoyed a very special period characterized by negotiation, dialogue, and peace, over conflicts, marches, or blockades.
After the expulsión of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, known by his Gringo nickname “Goni,” from the presidency of the Republic, there have been very few public protests.
Even the coca producers – one of the most powerful political, social, and union sectors in this country – have opted for dialogue.
The coca farmers at the grassroots ask, “dialogue? What for?” as their leaders double their efforts to succeed in getting some of their demands to be met by officials of the government of President Carlos Mesa.
Five months into the new administration, these two parties have met three times: there are so far no concrete advances, only good intentions.
The possibility of conducting a study of the legal coca market is under discusión, as is the industrialization of this medicinal crop, and the implemation of a national measurement system to determine the quantity of crops that exist, the possibility of demilitarizing the tropical towns, of suspending forced eradication of coca plants, of deepening the process of alternative development, and also the idea of proposing, together, to the United Nations, that coca be decriminalized.
These are not new proposals. They’ve been floated for years. The coca farmers of the Tropic of Cochabamba have had to hold demonstrations, marches, strikes, and blockades, and the government always responded with repression and militarization, with trials and prison, and the fruit of these conflicts has come in the form of the dead, the wounded, the orphans, and the widows.
Ever since the implementation of Law #1008 on Regulations for Coca and Controlled Substances on July 19, 1988, and even before, not a single presidential administration in Bolivia could offer concrete response to the coca growers’ demands because the decisions about “anti-drug” policies are not made on a national level, they are not sovereign, they have no dignity: they are, rather, imposed by the government of the United States.
In the most recent session between the government and the coca growers, held on March 8th in this city, both sides spoke about the importance of proposing the decriminalization of coca. This proposal would be made to the meeting of the United Nations Commission on Drugs that will be held next month in Vienna.
Some of our readers may ask; “The United Nations?” Yes, in 1948, the United Nations (UN) conducted a study of the effects of chewing coca leaf in Bolivia and Peru. Since there could be no other conclusion allowed, the results were nefarious because it concluded that, “coca is hazardous to your health.”
From there, and above all at the Drug Control Convention held in New York in 1961, the Bolivian government promised the total eradication of coca plants within 25 years: that is, by 1986, there should have already been not a single coca plant in this country.
At that meeting the reduction and and gradual eradication of coca leaf, substituting it with other crops, and the progressive reduction in coca chewing until this “insane” practice disappears completely, were established as policy: a census of coca crops would be conducted, a war on illegal drugs, a combat against addiction in the country, and the prohibition of new coca crops.
However, coca continues existing in this country because it is considered to be a food, a medicine, and a ritual plant.
During the talks with the government, coca grower leader and Congressman Evo Morales said that decriminalization must not be considered a mere possibility, but, rather, as a matter for immediate joint action: If not, social conflicts will occur. The government minister Alfonso Ferrufino said that the issue is the possibility that a joint proposal is developed and proposed to the international community.
“If some businesses have industrialized coca, how is it possible that it could be criminalized due to foreign meddling in our affairs? In some parts of the population, our coca is demonized, and in others it is not: This cannot continue this way. At this juncture, the Bolivian government can make an historic decision to decide if it is with God or if it is with the Devil,” Morales said.
In his book, “Immortal Coca,” the labor lawyer and Bolivian author Eusebio Gironda describes the foreign meddling in the war against coca:
“They also use the personnel and structures of the United Nations in their efforts to justify, legalize, and impose anti-drug policies made in the United States. Such is the case with the international norms that criminalize drugs and the production of raw material, that eradicate coca, poppy, and hashish, the penalties against coca chewing, the use of herbicides, and, recently, the experimentation with the coca-eating superfungus fusarium oxisparum. The United Nations is at the service of the superpower of the North and marches at its rhythm and demands on these issues: The UN is its spokesman and reproduces its anti-drug policies in concentrated form. The United Nations no longer expresses the interests or problems of the world, but, rather, what the United States thinks, feels, and wants.”
The coca growers and the government will meet again on March 22nd, although the government’s position has already been revealed by U.S. assistant secretary for international law enforcement and drugs Robert Charles: there must not be any pause in the eradication and all coca that is considered to be illegal must be eliminated.
According to the most recent State Department report out of Washington, there are 28,100 hectares of coca crops in Bolivia: 23,550 in the Yungas region of La Paz, and 4,600 in the towns of the Chapare of Cochabamba.
According to the law, only 12,000 hectares of coca re permitted.
On Thursday, March 11th, the same Robert Charles met privately with Bolivian President Carlos Mesa.
The Bolivian president didn’t speak about it, but the U.S. official told the press: “In my opinion, a pause in eradication would mean the deterioration of all that has been so far achieved in Bolivia. At the moment that Bolivia and the Chapare should be proud of having put the breaks on this (coca cultivation) and the increase of its latest chances for democracy, it seems to me that it would be a mistake to speak of a pause in eradication.”
The U.S. official added: “A good way to put the breaks on terrorism is to take away their sources of financing and a large source of financing for international criminal and terrorist organizations is drug trafficking.”
After these instructions from the government in Washington, the coca producers have a very clear picture: The government of Carlos Mesa will continue to follow the orders of the empire to the North.
Feliciano Mamani, leader of the coca growers’ Federation of the Tropic of Cochabamba, said yesterday that if the government does not meet their demands by Monday, March 22nd, there will be no other path left but demonstrations and popular protest…
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