WASHINGTON – As Evo Morales takes control of Bolivia following his presidential inauguration on Sunday, some American officials are wondering whether the former coca farmer will roll back years of U.S. anti-drug efforts in the impoverished Andean nation.
Bolivia, a mountainous country in South America, is the world's third-largest producer of cocaine, U.S. drug enforcement officials say. And although it has no coastline, Bolivia's border with Peru, its geographical proximity to Colombia and Venezuela -- countries that play a heavy role in cocaine trade -- and its coca leaf production capabilities make it central to efforts to stymie the drug trade and international crime.
Morales, a 46-year-old indigenous Aymara Indian, has called himself a "nightmare" for the United States but for real anti-drug efforts. He also is developing close ties with world leaders who are unfriendly to the United States — notably Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Cuba's Fidel Castro — a worrisome fact, says one U.S. lawmaker.
In Venezuela, "there's a distribution center and a pipeline already established for Bolivia to channel its drugs, and it's very dangerous for the United States and to the hemisphere," Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., told FOXNews.com.
Bolivian Links To Drug Trade
The Andes Mountains of South America are the source for just about all the cocaine that enters the United States. Among cocaine producers in the region, Bolivia follows Colombia and Peru in quantity of production, according to U.S. officials. Like in other countries, U.S. spending on anti-drug efforts in Bolivia breaks down into two main fronts: agricultural eradication programs and law enforcement.
The U.S. government helps pay for destruction of coca leaves and the replanting of other crops such as bananas. The State Department, which runs the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, expects to spend $91 million in Bolivia this year on eradication. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which works off ACI money for Bolivian efforts, also maintains links with the South American intelligence agencies in efforts to track the trade from grower to producer to shipper to distributor.
The coca leaf is legal to grow in Bolivia and can be used to make a popular tea frequently enjoyed there. Bolivia's role in the illegal trade is primarily in providing raw product to producers in neighboring nations. Bolivia's road network is weak and without a port, it can't easily ship refined cocaine, analysts say.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the land area dedicated to Bolivia's coca leaf cultivation increased slightly in 2005 to 65,455 acres, or one and half times the area of Washington, D.C. Bolivia is about the size of California and Texas combined.
Bolivia's coca crop has the potential to produce between 65 and 70 metric tons of cocaine, or 65,000 kilos. That's $6.5 billion in retail value, based on average U.S. prices per gram in 2001 cited by ONDCP's Pulse Check program.
By comparison, Colombia's cultivation area was estimated at 281,580 acres, and its coca leaf production is calculated to be 430,000 kilograms. Officials estimate total Andean cocaine production is 640 metric tons or 640,000 kilos.
"We are concerned about any country's cocaine production capability. ... The potential for cocaine production in Bolivia is very high ... and we're working with local authorities to fight it," said Steve Robertson, a DEA spokesman.
DEA agents say the narcotics trade and terror organizations are often linked. And although no link has yet been found between cocaine trafficking and Middle Eastern terror, agents are always on the lookout.
"Cocaine trafficking, the profits involved — that are immense — and terrorist organizations, just like any other organization, have to fund their organization," Robertson said.
Morales' Tight Rope Walk
Morales' position on cocaine is a precarious one for U.S. anti-drug efforts, officials say. Part of his campaign platform revolved around support for indigenous coca leaf producers, who have been targeted by the same U.S. efforts to eradicate the crop.
Yet Morales has been quoted saying he opposes the trade of powder cocaine and calls it "a poison."
On a pre-election visit to Spain in September, Morales said: "I didn't come to ask anything from Spain, only to give the position of our indigenous popular movement, which is a hope for the Bolivian community, and what is known as a nightmare for the United States government," according to the Spanish news agency, Europa Press.
In a December interview with the California-based bilingual newspaper, La Oferta, Morales said his party doesn’t want to be a nightmare for the United States, but it has become so because of false accusations.
"We have become a nightmare for them. We don’t want to be a nightmare. They decided that we would be a nightmare for them. Many accusations that Evo is a narco-terrorist, narco-trafficker, mafia 'cocalera,' (coca leaf farmer) come from Condoleezza Rice, from Otto Reich, from Roger Noriega, people who don't know me physically," Morales said, referring respectively to the secretary of state and two former assistant secretaries of state for western hemisphere affairs.
Sunday, during his inauguration, Morales called for an alliance with the United States to fight the cocaine trade, and said he was willing to increase trade of other commodities, such as soy and sugar, in an apparent move to reduce the availability of coca plant, according to a Spanish language transcript of his speech on a Bolivian Web site.
But the president said cooperation shouldn't be a green light for its more prosperous neighbor up north to trample on Bolivians' rights.
"We want to join in the fight against narco-trafficking," Morales said.
"We know, we are convinced that narco-trafficking is bad for humanity, but that the fight against narco-trafficking, that the fight against drugs, that cocaine will not be an excuse for the United States government to dominate or oppress our towns. We want a dialogue of truth — without oppression, without blackmail, without conditions," he said.
The official line from U.S. officials is to reserve judgment on Morales.
"We have publicly congratulated Mr. Morales on his apparent victory. ... The kind of relationship and the quality of the relationship between the United States and Bolivia will depend on what kind of policies they pursue, including how they govern, do they govern democratically and do they have a respect for democratic institutions," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a Dec. 20 briefing two days after the election.
"We would hope that the kind of cooperation that we have with Bolivia in fighting the production, transport and growing of illegal drugs continues. ... With respect to the production of coca, the growing of coca for production of illicit drugs, our policy on that is very clear," McCormack said.
The Relationship That Lies Ahead
In the interview with La Oferta, Morales sought to differentiate between coca leaf growers and narco-traffickers.
"One thing is the coca leaf and the other is cocaine. Let's not confuse one thing with the other. Cocaine is not part of indigenous culture. Cocaine harms human health and it must always be combated. Our position is zero cocaine," he is quoted as saying.
Nevertheless, he added, "If there is a fight against narco-trafficking, I can't understand why there is not a fight against the consumers. There isn't one. This is why I defy the United States government to form an alliance, an effective fight against narco-trafficking and the drug. Cocaine should be no excuse for the United States to expand its control, its will against our countries."
Differentiating between the plant and the drug is the type of thinking that scares the likes of Mack, the congressman who represents Florida's 14th district, which lies along the state's southwest coast on the front lines of the U.S. war on drugs.
Mack said he thinks Morales is just hiding behind the issue of legal coca plant uses, and that Morales' election represents a broader anti-democracy shift in the region. Mack late last year introduced a resolution seeking to condemn Venezuela's Chavez, in part for what Mack says is a destabilization of Bolivia. He said he hopes to get the resolution to the House floor quickly.
Referring to press reports in which Morales claimed Chavez among his biggest supporters, Mack said, "It shows that Hugo Chavez is willing to spend the money that he's receiving from oil to influence the political outcome in the region, and I think this is something that we all should be concerned about ... I have great concerns from the election of Evo Morales and how Hugo Chavez has played in that election," Mack said.
Analysts have also speculated that embracing coca leaf production could jeopardize not only anti-drug money, but other development money, including funds from the Millennium Challenge Account, an Bush administration international development finance initiative for which Bolivia is now eligible.
For now, though, anti-drug efforts will continue in Bolivia, regardless of who's in charge, said DEA's Robertson.
"DEA will continue to work with the Bolivian authorities to fight this struggle against the illegal drug trade, and the elected leader of Bolivia is the elected leader Bolivia," Robertson said.