- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — A coalition of coca farmers led by Bolivian President Evo Morales is calling publicly for the immediate expulsion of U.S. counternarcotics units from the country, raising questions about the viability of U.S. programs.

The move, placing further strain on tense relations with the United States, came late Tuesday at a meeting of six dominant coca-growing federations with Mr. Morales presiding.

However, the president appeared to back away from the resolution in an address to the armed forces yesterday afternoon, saying, “As long as Bolivia’s sovereignty is respected, no international organism will be expelled from Bolivia.”

The resolution would affect the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the State Department’s Narcotics Affairs Section and the Alternative Development Program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development to help farmers develop alternative crops.

Mr. Morales, who was sworn in as president last month, was named Monday to a new term as president of the coca growers’ coordinating committee, despite expectations that he would step down to avoid a conflict of interest.

Government spokesmen said before Mr. Morales spoke yesterday that the government would have to “respect” the coca growers’ resolution and open talks with the U.S. Embassy in La Paz regarding the closure of U.S.-supported military and police operations.

U.S. officials expressed surprise at the government’s open support for the coca growers, although Mr. Morales and other officials have called repeatedly for an end to the forceful eradication of coca plantations and U.S. interdiction programs.

“We keep getting mixed signals,” an embassy spokeswoman said.

U.S. Ambassador David N. Greenlee met last week with newly appointed counternarcotics officials, including Felipe Caceres, the vice minister for social defense, and Felix Barra, who heads the Alternative Development Program, since renamed the Program for Coca and Integral Development.

Mr. Caceres and Mr. Barra also are leaders of coca-growing syndicates.

Mr. Greenlee expressed satisfaction with his talks and said there was “room for understanding.”

The embassy canceled another meeting scheduled for yesterday after the resolution was passed at the eighth congress of the Six Federations of Coca Growers of the Tropic of Cochabamba.

A chief delegate who serves as first secretary of the coordinating committee of the federations, Julio Salazar, said, “All the institutions that receive direct support from the U.S. should go home.”

He called the resolution “among the most important determinations” made by the assembly. “It terminates this country’s submission to the U.S. Embassy.”

Government spokesman Alex Contreras called the congress of coca growers “one of the most important syndicates and political organizations” in Bolivia.

“We understand that we will have to dialogue with the U.S. Embassy to see the best way in which those institutions that have gone through their cycle can abandon the tropic of Cochabamba,” he said.

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