Thursday, December 23, 2010

The delicate dance of Evo Morales

The Delicate Dance of Evo Morales by Ann Gough (special to Land and People)

Morales thanked Ambassador Tobias for USAID assistance, highlighting alternative development and infrastructure programs in particular. Ambassador Tobias noted both countries' interest in close counternarcotics cooperation and acknowledged the GOB's interdiction efforts; Morales responded by saying his government is serious about fighting narcotics trafficking. Morales spoke in terms of a net reduction of coca and said his government plans to work harder in the Yungas; he also stressed the GOB's desire for closer counternarcotics cooperation with the United States.

In a 2007 U.S. Government cable (07LAPAZ597, 07LAPAZ597.html) part of the Wikileaks collection, Bolivian president Evo Morales engages USAID administrator Randall Tobias in a conversation on coca production and eradication. Morales has publicly voiced his opposition to the U.S. scorched earth intervention in Columbia’s coca eradication program, known as Plan Columbia. For a detailed account of the program and its damaging effects look at Doug Stokes’ book America’s Other War: Terrorizing Columbia.

In reading the above passage it would appear that Morales was beginning to give in to U.S. pressure to take a hard line stance on coca eradication. But perhaps his is a nuanced stance, based on dealing with the reality of U.S. ideology in the region. It would not be the first time. In 2006, another Wikileaks memo documents a meeting between the Bolivian Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramos de la Quintana and the U.S. Ambassador to Boilivia (06LAPAZ417, Quintana praises US efforts in coca eradication and tells the Ambassador that U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials may continue to operate out of the province of Chapare, yet two years later Morales kicked the DEA out of this area (

The 2007 conversation revels a delicate choreography in which Morales praises the U.S. and then gently critiques their policies. He states that he wants an “excellent relationship” with the U.S., perhaps because USAID sent two planes of food aid to Bolivian when flooding damages many of the poorer areas of the country. It is difficult to extrapolate Morales’ intentions from the U.S. cable. After he states that he wants the maximum level of cooperation with the U.S. government, he acknowledges that the U.S. is the most developed country in the world. But he goes on, they have a host of environmental problems and that perhaps the U.S. could learn from Bolivia about how to live in harmony with nature. In statements like this Morales seems to be demonstrating his independence from the omnipresent role of the U.S. in Latin America. So omnipresent the 2006 memo revealed that Quintana knew the DEA had substantial control of Bolivia’s intelligence services. The USAID representative chides him saying that the U.S. would prefer to see no increase in the rates of coca cultivation in Bolivia.

The coca plant is a flowering bush that is usually grown in the lowlands of the Andean mountain range. The leaves are harvested, dried and traditionally chewed with lime as a remedy against altitude sickness, fatigue and hunger. Cocaine the drug is made by a toxic combination of the coca leaves, powdered cement, battery acid and gasoline in process that bears no resemblance to the original edible leaf. Extensive coca eradication projects, like those advocated by the U.S. under Plan Columbia, involve aerial spraying of suspected coca production groves with highly concentrated Monsanto herbicides like Roundup. Bolivia has managed to resist these forced aerial spray campaigns that destroy the land and livelihoods of poor campesinos in Columbia.

The real issue, of course, is not the levels of coca production in Latin America. It is the role of economic integration like the Free Trade Area of the Americas that often force countries like Bolivia to open their markets to an influx of cheaper agricultural products, undercutting already impoverished farmers. Nor does it address the parallel issues of land reform for landless tenant farmers or indigenous rights for Bolivia’s indigenous farmers. Morales actually tried to educate the USAID official on this continuum. “His family, he said, focused on rice production but also grew a few catos of coca on the side. Because of globalization and increased international trade in the 1980's, Brazilian rice became cheaper than Bolivian rice, thus damaging his family's business. He recounted that in those years of hyperinflation, people had to sell large bundles of bananas to buy a coke or a beer.” He concludes stating that if the union of coca growers do not do a better job monitoring cocaine production, than he will have to return to the days of militarized eradication programs. Financed and administered by the Bolivian government.

So is Morales a pragmatic manouverer, dodging and cajoling U.S. manipulations? Or is he seeking U.S. favor to consolidate his power. Or both?