- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — A peasant-led political revolt that has toppled two Bolivian presidents in as many years is in large part inspired by coca farmers who have used the instability to vastly expand the areas under cultivation and exports to the United States and Europe.

In a move to placate unions of coca growers who had been besieging the capital, La Paz, and other main cities of Bolivia, the country’s most recently sworn-in president, Eduardo Rodriguez, met with leaders of coca-growing syndicates immediately upon taking office last month.

“We discussed the suspension of coca-leaf eradication,” said Evo Morales, leader of the Movement to Socialism party (MAS), which is backed by cocaine-producing interests and took part in the meeting held in the presidential palace. He called it a “victory” for coca farmers.

MAS, which organized a recent round of national protests that toppled President Carlos Mesa and gets 20 percent of the national vote, was described by a high-level U.S. government source in La Paz as a “syndicate of coca growers.”

Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Washington referred questions on the matter to the State Department, where a spokesman said coca production is “one of the key issues” in the U.S.-Bolivia relationship.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in La Paz said, “We trust that the Bolivian government will abide by past agreements to eliminate [15,000 acres] of illegal coca.”

A top Bolivian presidential aide said the government was “abiding by existing agreements with both the international community and with the coca farmers.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he called the curtailment of coca-leaf eradication a “temporary measure” aimed at restoring normalcy after weeks of popular upheavals had paralyzed the country.

Mr. Rodriguez, who is ruling as an interim president until new elections can be held in five months, has also announced plans to form a new commission with MAS to “study” coca-leaf farming.

Government officials say Mr. Mesa declared a “moratorium” on coca-leaf eradication to avoid violent uprisings after a coca farmer was killed in a clash with government troops last September.

A study released by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) links the relaxation of controls to a 38 percent rise in coca cultivation.

The UNODC study, released at the agency’s Vienna, Austria, headquarters on June 20, used satellite photographs to show that coca-leaf cultivation has expanded from 55,000 acres to 67,000 acres during the past two years.

The coca growers have also made political inroads in Peru, where the mayor of the ancient Andean capital, Cuzco, has declared coca-leaf farming legal in his jurisdiction. Municipal authorities in Bolivia’s coca-growing regions of Chapare and Yungas are expected to follow suit.

A small amount of coca cultivation is allowed under current law to make coca tea and other traditional staples derived from the leaf.

“The people are completely fed up with eradication,” said Norberto Mamani, the MAS mayor of Bustillo, a coca-producing town in Chapare, where local farmers recently laid siege to an army anti-drug base. “The government needs to look after our interests if it hopes to keep the peace.”

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned in October 2003 after a violent uprising, in which 78 persons were killed by troops firing on anti-government demonstrators.

Protests and strikes that paralyzed highways and sealed off entire communities continued intermittently throughout the tenure of Mr. Sanchez de Lozada’s successor, Mr. Mesa, who tried to reach an accommodation with coca farmers and indigenous groups.

But Mr. Mesa was forced out of office when MAS-led mobs besieged parliament last month. An alliance of Indian and leftist groups also demanded the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas and a new constitution.

One of the few officials willing to discuss the issue on the record was Hormando Vaca Diez, the president of Bolivia’s Senate, who was passed over as the direct constitutional successor to Mr. Mesa largely because of pressure from MAS.

“All past progress in controlling coca production is going to hell,” he said, adding that illegal facilities to refine cocaine paste — which had been all but eliminated in the late 1990s are starting up again.

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