- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Politicians and farmers in Peru and Bolivia have discovered an opiate for mobilizing the masses: coca activism mixed with a potent dose of anti-American sentiment. The emergence of a coca-growing, yanqui-hating contingency in these countries has had a decidedly mood-altering effect on U.S. diplomats and Washington officials, who view with concern this political phenomenon that threatens U.S. interests. While the growing of coca leaves has long been a problem in Latin America's Andean ridge, widespread, sometimes violent political activism for the right to grow coca is a new phenomenon. What makes this activism even more disconcerting is that Peru and Bolivia were models of U.S.-supported counter-narcotics success. And the unholy union between drug-trafficking and terrorism in Peru makes the emergence of coca activism a heightened concern.

In Peru this month, the government halted its U.S.-backed coca-eradication efforts and crop-substitution program, which gives farmers subsidies to grow crops other than coca, in the wake of violent protests by farmers against the programs. This is particularly worrisome in light of the State Department's Senate testimony this February that a terrorist group, Shining Path, ravaged the Peruvian countryside in the 1980s and mid-1990s, has made a resurgence in coca-cultivating areas, indicating it is linked with the drug trade. U.S. intelligence experts believe the Shining Path was probably behind March's deadly bombing in Lima, which took place just outside the U.S. Embassy days before President Bush's visit to Peru.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales, who has led sometimes bloody protests against U.S.-funded coca-eradication programs, won about 21 percent of the vote in the June 30 presidential election, second only to free-marketer Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who won about 22 percent. The Bolivian congress will elect the next president on Aug. 3 in a runoff vote. Mr. Morales' coca stand didn't really take off until it was tinged with contempt for America. After U.S. ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha said late last month that a Morales triumph would "place in danger" U.S. aid to Bolivia, Mr. Morales called Mr. Rocha's comments "terrorist and arbitrary," adding that the U.S. ambassador was his "best campaign chief."

This pro-coca contingency could reverse the remarkable counter-narcotics gains made in Peru and Bolivia. Peru in 1992 grew 129,100 hectares of coca, but only 34,200 hectares last year. Bolivia reduced its production from 45,500 hectares to 14,600 hectares during the same period. While much of this coca cultivation has been shifted to Colombia, which produces about 135,000 hectares of coca, stomping out coca in these countries has generated considerable peace and stability dividends.

Since economic growth stagnated in both Bolivia and Peru last year, it may be tempting to turn a blind eye to coca production by poor farmers. But both rural dwellers and the United States will sorely regret the resurgence of narco-terrorists. America must therefore take its counter-narcotics efforts in Latin America seriously, and launch an effective program for countering aerial drug-running as soon as possible. It must also pull out all the diplomatic stops to convince Peru to restore its counter-narcotics programs.

To ease the burden, Washington should make a sincere attempt to lower tariffs and reduce U.S. subsidies on the goods that poor countries can competitively produce, such as agriculture and textiles. It must also redirect its approach to giving U.S. aid, which currently buys the support of elite influence-peddlers and largely bypasses the poor. Of the $153 million slated to be given to Peru this fiscal year, only about $30 million is geared to grass-roots funding targeted to the poor. In Bolivia, just about $10 million, out of $84 million, is geared to this kind of funding.

The war on drugs may appear to be a losing endeavor, until some of its substantive successes are on the verge of collapse. While U.S. demand for cocaine drives much suffering in Latin America, U.S. counter-narcotic efforts help to ameliorate some of the damage. Inertia often has a stuporous effect on Washington bureaucrats, but if the White House doesn't take notice of the coca crisis soon, the problem may quickly become too massive to contain.


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