U.S. Drug and Coca Eradication Policies in Bolivia

By Michelle Garza

The 1980s brought us such things as big hair, baggy clothes, and the resurgence of both neon colors and the electric keyboard. It also brought us Reaganomics and a rambunctious First Lady who took up arms against the drug lords of the world with her tough stance on drugs. President Nixon in 1972 initially coined the phrase “War on Drugs,” but it was the drug policies of the Reagan Administration and the preceding presidents, that have added billion dollar budgets to match the powerful rhetoric.

Since the 1980s billions of dollars have been pumped into the Andean region with the express purpose of curbing cocaine abuse in the United States through the eradication of coca in Latin America. Source eradication has been the method choice in confronting the U.S. drug problem since the 1980s. Andy Messing, spokesperson of the National Defense Council, demonstrates the oversimplication common in policy makers of the time: “Eradication is elegant, almost beautiful, in its simplicity. Without the wholesale cultivation of the coca plant there is no cocaine trade.” However this simplification discounts the potential of this nutritious plant by equating it with one of its many derivatives. The World Health Organization and the United Nation have confirmed what indigenous peasants have consistently argued, that coca is neither addictive nor harmful. It is only when coca is processed with forty-one other chemicals that it becomes an addictive narcotic.

Leonida Vargas, a prominent cocalera leader in Bolivia, likes to use the example—just as grapes do not equal wine, neither does coca equal cocaine. Coca eradication policies are the manifestation of a misconceived meta-narrative ingrained in U.S. policy that equates the coca plant with cocaine. In addition, coca eradication policies discount the cultural and economic importance of coca for Quechua, Aymara, and other Andean cultures as well as the potential benefits of the plant.

The implementation of these policies has overlooked the cultural significance of the coca leaf to indigenous. Coca has been cultivated in the region for use in traditional medicine, social interactions, spiritual rituals, and commercial trade, since the Incas. Coca is both integrated into both the cultural and economic lives of rural peasants. Campesinos, rural peasants, treat scrapes and cuts with coca leaves that aid in the healing process and provide a light anesthetic. In addition, millions of Quechua and Aymara Indians mastica la coca—chew on the coca leaves—on a daily basis to ward off fatigue, hunger, and thirst. And even more Bolivians drink coca tea to help with the high altitudes in the north. The indigenous peasants of Bolivia have become highly organized in response to what they see as a US threat to their cultural and economic survival through repressive policies implemented by the militarization of their communities, the forced eradication of their coca, and the abuse, physical and psychological, of their people.

Vargas lives in the village of Eterazama. She has never had running water or electricity. Her parents were Quechua and lived in the lowland jungles of the Chapare. They both chewed coca and grew coca on their land. After her father died when Leonida was only two, her mother raised six children by growing coca. Leonida herself used to have coca fields but through the eradication process this land has been reduced to only a small plot of land known as a chaco. Leonida has been instrumental in mobilizing peasant women in the Chapare in defense of coca and their land. She was the first female president of the Six Federations of Coca Growers of the Chapare, a position that she still holds today. She has organized protests and demonstrations in defense of coca, land, and Bolivian sovereignty, including a twenty-one day march from Cochabamba to La Paz. For Leonida, and the other cocaleros, coca represents the ancestry and the future of her culture.

U.S. involvement in Bolivia skyrocketed in 1985, during the worst economic crisis in Bolivia’s history. At this time the Bolivian government accepted aid from the U.S. government and the World Bank in exchange for the implementation of neoliberal policies, such as open markets and privatization of state-run facilities. One of the most important laws to be passed with U.S. influence was Ley 1008 in 1988. This “U.S. law,” as it was dubbed (the original was in English and had to be translated), was the most sensitive and difficult law on coca ever passed in Bolivia’s history.

The law was the first major step toward complete coca eradication of the Chapare and was met with grassroots demonstrations against 1) the implicit degradation of the integrity of the coca plant and; 2) the US-funded militarization of the Chapare tropics to enforce this law. Peasants of the region have accused the military of rape, physical abuse, human rights violations, and corruption and, in response, have organized marches and demonstrations to protest these practices. Vargas comments: “We are organized, because we are traumatized.”

The cocaleros blame the United States for these injustices and see U.S. intervention as a form of imperialism designed to acculturate their indigenous society with the Western world. Evo Morales, a Bolivian congressman and former Bolivian presidential candidate, expresses the ironic truth of a U.S. drug war fought in Bolivia: “More Bolivians die every year in the coca conflict (proportionately to population) than U.S. citizens die from cocaine abuse... [For us] the remedy is worse than the disease.”

The United States has funded the Bolivian government with millions of dollars to support coca eradication policies as part of U.S. foreign policy concerning drugs. However, cocaine use in the United States remains unchanged. Source eradication policies are ineffective in several ways. First, supply will always match demand. Eradication in one area only means more production in another, called the “balloon effect” (if you squeeze on one area the other area inflates to compensate, leaving net production the same). Production in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia fluctuate in relation to the U.S. presence at the time—the United States lacks the resources and manpower to regulate the entire region. In addition, the pay-offs are minimal. An independent study completed in 1994 concluded that drug treatment and education in the United States yield returns that are 50 times greater than those of coca eradication. Instead of the United States spending $7 billion a year on an ineffective international drug war, the country should use its technological and military capabilities to impose controls on its own borders, thereby targeting drug traffickers rather than coca farmers.

This misguided approach also overlooks the potential of coca as rehabilitative treatment. Preliminary studies have shown promising uses of coca tea in preventing cocaine addicts from falling back into addiction. Multiple cups of coca tea on a daily basis for three months have shown positive results as a treatment for heroin, morphine, alcohol, nicotine and chemical addictions. This new market for coca could contribute to a reduction in the level of drug addiction in the United States. More funding for this type of scientific research is needed, and for that, the current stigma must be dismantled.

Coca eradication policies do not make a great enough impact on drug trafficking to justify their social cost, specifically on the Bolivian poor and on indigenous cultures. Coca within its cultural context is a valuable resource, and one has to question whether the utter destruction of coca fields would be profoundly detrimental cultural and economic consequences for Andean people. What is needed are new policies that build the Bolivian economy by integrating the indigenous culture into the formation of U.S. drug policies, rather than trying to implement policies that run counter to it.

Michelle Garza is a joint concentrator at Harvard in Anthropology and Women’s Studies who is currently working on her honors thesis on women’s leadership in the coca movement. Her research in the Chapare region of Bolivia in the summer of 2004 was funded by a DRCLAS grant.