- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2005

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia — Evo Morales, the front-runner in next week’s presidential election, has told The Washington Times that he plans to legalize small coca plantations and dismantle U.S. anti-drug operations in Bolivia if he becomes president.

Mr. Morales — the son of an Indian servant who was born in a grass hut, never finished high school and gained national prominence by organizing militant unions of landless coca farmers — is challenging one of the most sensitive and critical areas of U.S. policy in Latin America.

During an interview in Bolivia’s coca-growing region, Mr. Morales, said he is prepared to risk international sanctions against South America’s poorest nation in order to achieve his movement’s key objectives.

“We are going to derogate the coca zero law,” he said of a measure pushed through Bolivia’s parliament 20 years ago strictly limiting coca production and authorizing cooperation with U.S. eradication efforts.

“We are prepared to negotiate with the gringos, but won’t accept impositions,” he said. “If they want to take away their aid, let them. It’s useless anyway and serves mainly to repress the people.”

Mr. Morales, 45, says he would not tolerate cocaine trafficking but promises to allow every farming family to cultivate coca on one “cato” of land — roughly half an acre — for therapeutic uses and for chewing, a long-standing tradition among Bolivian Indians.

But critics say that amount of production would produce huge surpluses available for export, turning Bolivia into a narcostate.

Eradication efforts have been largely suspended in Bolivia since last year, when the country was paralyzed by protests and blockades led by Mr. Morales’ left-wing Movement to Socialism (MAS). The protest movement has succeeded in toppling two presidents since 2003.

The government estimates there are 79,000 acres of coca under cultivation in Bolivia. Officials privately say that there is little they can do to reduce production without risking a new round of unrest that could scuttle hopes for a peaceful election next Monday.

The latest opinion polls show Mr. Morales likely to win nearly 40 percent of the vote with his main opponent, Jorge Quiroga of the conservative Podemos party, not far behind. Podemos has launched a negative television ad campaign highlighting MAS ties with narcotrafficking, terrorism, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

Mr. Quiroga is expected to carry the big-city vote of Santa Cruz and the capital, La Paz. But in a country where an estimated 70 percent of the population subsists outside the formal economy, MAS is relying heavily on mobilizing peasant support in rural areas where growing coca is a way of life.

In the community of Quillancollo recently, about 15,000 Indians gathered to cheer and throw rose petals on Mr. Morales, who promises to “put an end to over 500 years of white domination.”

“Of course we are going to legalize coca. It’s the only way that we are going to get out of our current misery,” said Ileana Fuentes, a young MAS militant who cheered when speakers declare in the native Quechua language: “Death to those who have sold out the homeland” and “Let’s finish off the Yanquis.”

Omar Barrientos, a Cochabamba lawyer who worked as a consultant to the U.S. State Department in drafting anti-drug policy, said Mr. Morales had fashioned a coalition of various far-left groups “for the common purpose of resisting the highly unpopular coca zero law.”

“Evo formed MAS by forging an alliance between coca-growing syndicates, remnants of Che Guevara-inspired guerrilla groups, radical indigenous organizations, Trotskyite-led miners’ unions as well as elements of the traditional left,” Mr. Barrientos said.

The United States was authorized to interdict coca growing in Bolivia in the 1980s after a drastic increase in coca production as miners from the high Andes migrated to Cochabamba to make easy money farming coca in the tropical valley of Chapare.

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