Pubdate: Tue, 20 Dec 2005
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 2005
Author: Jeremy McDermott, and Alfonso Daniels in La Paz
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Bolivia has its first indigenous Indian president after a landslide
victory that leaves relations with the United States at a historic low
and Washington's war on drugs in tatters.

Evo Morales, 46, who was the clear favourite, far exceeded
expectations, with exit polls and quick counts of the ballots showing
him passing the 50 per cent barrier.

He will be the first president to do so since the country returned to
democracy in 1982.

"We have won and now we are going to change this country," said Mr
Morales, surrounded by delirious supporters. "All the majority
together. The people are finally in power."

Mr Morales is expected to be confirmed as president by Bolivia's
congress in January.

Fireworks blazed over La Paz, many coming from the poor city of El
Alto which sits over the capital, a stronghold of Mr Morales's
Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. He enjoys much support from
Bolivia's Indian population, who make up just over half of the
country's 9.4 million people.

Indigenous people have taken control of their own destiny. It is
a great day for Bolivia - Jose Tapia, student

"It has finally happened," said Jose Tapia, 22, a student and fervent
MAS supporter. "Indigenous people have taken control of their own
destiny. It is a great day for Bolivia."

The key issue for many Bolivian voters was the nationalisation of the
country's oil and gas. Bolivia sits astride the largest known deposits
of natural gas in South America, but these are mostly under the
control of foreign companies, among them British Gas. Mr Morales has
pledged to rip up existing contracts and said that while he will stop
short of confiscation, everything has to be renegotiated.

"We will not extort foreign companies," he said. "But the Bolivian
people demand we take control of our natural resources."

But the overwhelming victory could push his reforms farther than
originally planned. A euphoric Carlos Villegas, MAS's main economic
adviser, told The Scotsman in the middle of celebrations at the
party's headquarters, that the nationalisation drive will now be more
ambitious. "The state will recover 100 per cent ownership over the
hydrocarbon industry. We'll offer multinationals [including British
Gas and BP] the option to recover their investments and generate a
reasonable return, not the outrageous amounts they're making right

As he spoke, some 300 MAS followers outside the building waved party
flags and shouted "The people united will never be defeated."

With expectations running extremely high in the country - which has
suffered more than 160 coups since independence in 1825 - Mr Morales
will soon face serious challenges.

We will not extort foreign companies, but the Bolivian people
demand we take control of our natural resources - Evo Morales

For one, MAS lacks trained personnel to run the government. According
to Mr Villegas, "99.99 per cent of us haven't got any public
management experience", even though "with our will and determination
we'll be able to do the job".

Also, one of MAS's star initiatives - enshrining Indian rights in a
rewritten constitution next summer - may soon run into trouble, given
Indian groups' conflicting demands.

While the nationalisation issue most concerns Britain, drugs are
central to the US relationship with the poorest South American nation.

The State Department issued a veiled warning when its spokeswoman,
Amanda Rogers-Harper, said: "As with all nations, the quality of our
relationship will depend on the convergence of our interests, and that
includes counter-narcotics issues.

"We continue to support the government of Bolivia's long-standing
counter-narcotics policy, and we expect the next government to honour
its international commitments."

Bolivia is the third largest producer of cocaine in the world, after
Colombia and Peru. For many rural voters, particularly the farmers of
Chapare, from where Mr Morales comes, the key issue was the
decriminalisation of the growing of coca. Coca is an everyday feature
of Bolivian life. Many people chew it to keep working at the high
altitudes and all foreign visitors to La Paz, the Americas' highest
capital, are offered coca tea to help ward off altitude sickness.

At the moment only 12,000 hectares of coca crops are legal, the amount
calculated to supply traditional demand for leaves. Mr Morales has
said this is not enough and more effort must be made to industrialise
the legal products derived from the coca leaf. He insists a study must
be commissioned to evaluate coca demand. Meanwhile, coca growing will
be decriminalised.

Cocaine, which is the refinement and crystallisation of a coca
extract, is not used in Bolivia and is a foreign invention. However
much of Bolivia's coca production is sold to drugs traffickers,
producing 90 tonnes of cocaine a year. Brazil recently expressed
concern about Bolivian-sourced cocaine on its streets. The US fears
that Mr Morales' plans to legalise coca production will create a
bonanza for drugs traffickers to buy, undermining the
multi-billion-dollar war on cocaine.

Also of deep concern to the White House is Mr Morales's friendship
with outspoken critics of the Bush administration such as Venezuela's
Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Mr Morales has said he will
accept no bullying from the White House and wants dialogue, "not a
relationship of submission".

Washington now has few friends in South America. Only Colombia's
Alvaro Uribe is a stalwart ally and even he seems to be distancing
himself, last week rebuking the American ambassador to Bogota for
interfering in internal affairs.

The rest of South America divides into those fervently opposed to
George Bush, headed by Mr Chavez, and other left-wing governments like
that of Brazil, which keep Washington at arm's length. The US looks to
have lost control of its "back yard".
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin