Pubdate: Sat, 22 Feb 2003
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Austin American-Statesman


LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP)--The president of Bolivia is considering a plan to 
resume cultivation of the raw ingredient in cocaine in a remote jungle 
basin--a move the U.S. government fears would undermine what is viewed as 
its most successful anti-drug program in South America.

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada is studying a proposal to allow 
cultivation of coca in the Chapare region of central Bolivia to help calm 
unrest among growers who have blockaded major highways and put their 
support behind his political rival.

"We've begun serious dialogues with coca growers with the aim of combatting 
drug trafficking and maintaining social tranquility," Ernesto Justiniano, 
the vice minister of social defense, said in an interview with The 
Associated Press on Friday.

Justiniano said the program would hurt drug traffickers by giving the 
government more control over what is now a clandestine industry in the 
jungle lowlands.

U.S. officials staunchly oppose the proposal to allow each grower in the 
area to plant one-fifth of an acre of coca, saying it would undermine the 
$1.3 billion effort to eradicate coca plantations from the region over the 
last six years.

"Our policy is very clear and it remains clear," said an official at the 
U.S. embassy who spoke only on condition his name not be used. "Any 
proposal that would legitimize or legalize any coca in the Chapare_which is 
illegal_would be a violation of Bolivian law and a violation of 
international treaties to which Bolivia is a signatory."

U.S. officials have said the proposal could trigger a halt in aid from the 
United States and international lending agencies such as the International 
Monetary Fund to South America's poorest nation. It could also be used to 
exclude Bolivia from inclusion in a proposed hemispheric free-trade zone 
backed by Washington.

Bolivia's government plans to conduct a six-month study to determine the 
size of the nation's limited legal coca market, which is now restricted to 
some 30,000 acres to supply indigenous people who chew the leaves, which 
act as a stimulant and can stave off hunger.

American officials fear that enlarging the area allowed for legal 
cultivation would return Bolivia to the ranks of major cocaine producers.

All coca production in the Chapare_a jungle basin the size of New Jersey 
that supplied half of all cocaine in the world five years ago_is illegal. 
The leaf has been eradicated by U.S.-trained soldiers who often engage in 
firefights with coca farmers.

Despite U.S. opposition, analysts say Bolivia's government has little 
bargaining power with the coca growers, who stage frequent blockades along 
the nation's largest highway at a time when the Bolivia's government is 
struggling with an economic crisis that has provoked deadly riots.

A move to aid coca growers, who generally belong to the nation's strongest 
opposition group, could aid the president on the domestic front.

"Bolivia has suddenly been confronted by a unified burst of anger from 
movements on all sides," said Jim Shultz, executive director of the 
Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third largest city. "The 
president is weak and ready to give away the store."

If Bolivia were to alter its eradication policy, American officials said it 
would run the risk of losing part of an estimated $150 million annual aid 
package it receives from the U.S. Congress, and threaten its membership in 
the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas.

U.S. officials also warn Bolivia could again become a major part of the 
international drug circuit again. Once the world's largest supplier of the 
raw ingredient of cocaine, Bolivia is now an insignificant producer behind 
Colombia and Peru.

U.S. officials are also concerned that allowing more cultivation would 
encourage Socialist candidate Evo Morales, a former coca grower who 
narrowly lost last year's presidential election.

"One of the things that destabilized Bolivia in the past was a rampant, 
unfettered drug trade," the U.S. official said. "It would be a shame to 
turn around and go backwards."
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