- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bolivia’s incoming President Evo Morales could easily become the nightmare for the United States that he boasted about becoming on the campaign trail. He supports the growing of coca, the raw material for cocaine, is an ally of a prominent anti-U.S. firebrand, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and wants to nationalize Bolivia’s oil sector. He will undoubtedly do everything in his power to counter U.S. economic and geopolitical interests in Latin America.

Interestingly enough, the electoral landslide that will be bringing Mr. Morales to power was unwittingly aided by the architects of U.S. drug policy in Latin America. While it is true that a host of factors have catapulted Mr. Morales to power, not least among them is U.S. support for drug-eradication schemes. The unfortunate rise of Mr. Morales should spur thinking in Washington about U.S. foreign policy in America’s near abroad.

With about 80 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Morales won 52 percent of the vote and is poised to become the first presidential candidate in 25 years to garner enough support to avoid a runoff. Needless to say, Mr. Morales, who will be the first indigenous Bolivian president, has a clear mandate. He will open the door to dropping restrictions on the growing of coca and will be leading a country rich in natural-gas reserves. If his rule becomes as radical as many fear, it could lead to a range of worst-case-scenario outcomes, including a dangerous division of Bolivia along ethnic and geographic lines.

The triumph of Mr. Morales is a fait accompli, and policy-makers in Washington are now searching for strategies for dealing with him. The administration has made it clear that it is willing to work with him. At a briefing Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the department had congratulated Mr. Morales on his victory.

The administration and Congress should also consider more broadly how constructive U.S.-supported counter-drug initiatives have been in Latin America. Those multimillion-dollar programs do not appear to have reduced the amount or price of illicit drugs sold in the United States. The policies have succeeded, though, in alienating the poor farmers that grow the crops.

Bolivia’s indigenous population has chewed coca leaves and used the leaves for tea since time immemorial to counteract altitude sickness. The effects of such uses of the leaf are subtle and do not get the user high. Many Bolivians see those uses of coca as a right and a matter of culture and pride. They perceive U.S.-financed aerial eradication as an assault on their culture, livelihood and health. Those same attitudes prevail in other Andean countries. Mr. Morales was able to effectively harness frustration about U.S. drug policy to win the presidential election.

The administration should rethink how it should prosecute the drug war in Latin America. Good intentions that lead to bad results do not make good policy. We do not need any more Bolivian-type political results.

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