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Running on the coca ticket
date: 23-November-2005
country: BOLIVIA
editorial comment editorial comment
About time somebody stands up to the bullies........

The coca farmers on these steep mountain slopes have long felt their livelihood and Indian identity threatened by U.S.-backed efforts to uproot the crop that makes cocaine. Now they are pinning their hopes on one of their own: an Indian coca farmer who is the front-runner for Bolivia's presidency.

Evo Morales promises that if elected Dec. 4, he will decriminalize all coca farming. That would mean an end to a decade-old crop eradication program that has led to clashes between farmers and soldiers in which dozens have died.

He would also be Bolivia's first Indian president, and his leftist politics -- he's a close friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez -- would move yet another Latin American government leftward, following the paths of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

A Morales victory may worry Washington, as well as many governments in Europe, the chief market for Bolivian cocaine. But the cocaleros, as coca farmers are known, are delighted at the prospect.

"Many Indians are very hopeful that these elections can change history," said Issaes Alvarez, 23, a cocalero and town councilor in La Asunta, in a coca-growing region northeast of La Paz, the capital. "If the eradication continues, there will be a massacre, there will be death, there will be violations of human rights."

Indians are the majority in this nation of 8.5 million. For centuries, those in the Andean highlands have chewed the coca leaf to fight hunger pangs and work up energy, used it in religious ceremonies and boiled it into medicinal tea. It's sold legally in supermarkets throughout Bolivia and Peru, and served as tea in cafes.

Coca is also the main ingredient of cocaine, and the Bolivian and U.S. governments are convinced a growing amount is turned into drugs. Bolivia, the world's No. 3 coca power after Colombia and Peru, produced as much as 118 tons of cocaine last year, up 35 percent from 2003, according to the latest U.N. World Drug Report.

Morales' family is one of many who migrated from Bolivia's poor western highlands, where it struggled along by herding llamas and growing potatoes. In the tropical Chapare region, in southeast Bolivia, Morales began growing coca, became a trade union official and, in 1993, president of the cocalero organization. He still operates a coca farm.

Chapare is his power base, and it was there that he led the often violent clashes with government forces over coca eradication. He was elected to Congress in 1997 and narrowly lost the presidential race to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2002. He was a key figure in protests that brought down Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and his successor, Carlos Mesa, in June.

Opinion polls give him a slight edge over conservative former President Jorge Quiroga Ramírez.

"Thanks to coca, we've made it through the endless suffering caused by the white man's infamous war on drugs," Morales wrote on his Web site.

Meanwhile, pulling out plants by hand continues. Last year, troops uprooted 20,800 acres in Chapare -- 83 percent of the total.

Los Yungas, about 300 miles away, is the only region where growing is legal. The government lets cocaleros farm 29,600 acres, but the U.N. Illicit Crop Monitoring Program estimates that an additional 13,000 acres are planted.

Now the government is looking atLos Yungas, too. Next month it will begin paying some farmers to destroy their plants and encourage them to switch crops voluntarily. Authorities promise there'll be no uprooting by force. But after the army enlarged a checkpoint to track illegal drugs out of Los Yungas, cocaleros threatened a blockade, fearing eradication.

Farmers say alternative crops such as coffee and bananas are harder to grow and transport, and fetch a lower price. They are staking their hopes on Morales -- and their future on coca.

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