Pubdate: Fri, 29 Aug 2008
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A1, Front Page
Copyright: 2008 The New York Times Company
Author: Simon Romero


CHIMORE, Bolivia -- The refrain here in the Chapare jungle about 
Americans is short but powerful: "Long Live Coca, Death to the Yanquis!"

So when President Evo Morales recently came to the area, raising his 
fist and shouting those words before his supporters, the irony was 
not lost on an elite wing of the Bolivian military that survives on 
American support.

"We depend on the Americans for everything: our bonuses, our 
training, our vehicles, even our boots," Lt. Col. Jose German Cuevas, 
the commander of a Bolivian special forces unit that hunts down 
cocaine traffickers, said at a military base here in central Bolivia.

With Vietnam-era Huey helicopters donated by the United States 
swirling above the base and dozens of Bolivian officers who have been 
trained alongside the Green Berets at the School of the Americas in 
Fort Benning, Ga., Bolivia ranks among the most muddled fronts of the 
Andean drug war.

Mr. Morales, a former grower of coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine, 
is both an antagonist and an active partner in American antidrug 
policy for the region. He often describes the United States as his 
leading adversary and has made the right to grow the coca leaf a top 
symbol of sovereignty and anti-imperialism.

Yet he has also gone to unexpected lengths to restrain coca 
cultivation, and he accepts about $30 million a year from the United 
States -- almost his entire antinarcotics budget -- to fight cocaine.

For now, Mr. Morales and the United States remain uneasy bedfellows. 
Mr. Morales has been hesitant to sever ties with the United States, 
especially since it provides Bolivia with about $100 million in 
development aid each year. It also grants duty-free access for 
Bolivian textiles, an economic lifeline for his country.

On the American side, officials argue that a sharp increase in coca 
cultivation could drive more cocaine to the United States, even 
though it is currently a negligible market for Bolivian cocaine. A 
deeper reason may be that the antidrug money gives them a rare window 
into Mr. Morales's government.

But this cooperation is coming under increasing strain. Radical parts 
of Mr. Morales's political base, instrumental in bringing him to 
power, are chafing at American anti-coca policies, especially here in 
the Chapare, where coca growers expelled American aid workers last 
month amid claims that they were conspiring to topple Mr. Morales's government.

Tensions are raw in the capital, La Paz, as well. Two months ago a 
mob of 20,000 protesters marched to the gates of the American 
Embassy, clashing with the police and threatening to burn the 
building down, prompting the State Department to temporarily recall 
Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg in protest. After the episode, Mr. 
Morales praised the demonstrators.

"Evo Morales simply cannot accede to U.S. demands after being 
democratically elected by a large mass of angry and hungry Indian 
peasants who see no real alternatives for themselves and their 
children," said Bruce Bagley, an expert on Andean drug policies at 
the University of Miami.

But in a drug war in which contradictions abound, Mr. Morales is 
doing better than antinarcotics experts feared when he rose to power.

At the time, some warned that his presidency would usher in a return 
to the early 1980s, when military rulers allowed coca output to surge 
in the Chapare, destabilizing the country. But Mr. Morales has been 
eager to show that he does not run a narco-state, and working with 
the Americans helps bolster his international legitimacy.

Cultivating Coca

Coca cultivation has increased during his two years in office, but 
instead of booming, it has simply climbed, up 8 percent in 2006 and 5 
percent in 2007, according to the United Nations.

That still places Bolivia far behind the world's largest coca 
producer, Colombia. Despite being the Bush administration's most 
ardent ally in the region, Colombia had a 27 percent increase in coca 
cultivation last year, and remains the top source of cocaine smuggled 
to the United States.

While American officials publicly congratulate Mr. Morales for 
keeping cultivation from exploding, they are privately pointed in 
their criticism. "Let's put it this way: It's going in the wrong 
direction," said an American official at the United States Embassy in 
La Paz about Mr. Morales's drug policies, speaking anonymously 
because of tense relations with Bolivia.

Still, it is a wonder that Bolivia and the United States remain 
antinarcotics allies at all, with Mr. Morales chipping away at 
American influence in Bolivia.

Indeed, Mr. Morales has said that the decades of American aid to 
Bolivia had as much to do with asserting control over puppet 
governments as with fighting drugs or helping people. Earlier this 
year, he dissolved an intelligence unit that received American money, 
and he announced that Bolivia would stop sending officers to receive 
combat training in the United States.

Meanwhile, here in the Chapare, the American-backed Anti-Narcotics 
Special Forces, known as the Leopards, go about their job. Each day 
at dawn, eight-man teams in camouflage snake out of a military base 
here in new Nissan Patrol sport utility vehicles, driving down dirt 
roads into the jungle. Then they get out and walk, chopping through 
brush with machetes, grasping M-16 rifles, in search of small mobile 
coca-mashing factories that have pushed Bolivian cocaine production 
to a 10-year high. When they find one, they set it ablaze.

After finding a lab in a clearing in the thick jungle, Lt. Freddy 
Saenz, 27, said he tried not to think about the pro-coca ideology 
that had become a defining element of Mr. Morales's presidency. "We 
just do our job, trying to destroy the labs," said Lieutenant Saenz, 
sweat falling from his brow. "Coca will always be a part of life in Bolivia."

Archaeologists say coca has been grown in the Andes since before 
Jesus was born. While much of the West associates coca with cocaine, 
many Bolivians chew it to alleviate altitude sickness, combat hunger 
pangs or stay alert, a daily ritual much like drinking a latte in 
rich countries. In some of the fashionable cafes of La Paz, it is not 
uncommon to be served a plate of coca leaves upon sitting down.

'Caldron of Violence'

Mr. Morales, 48, spent his teenage years in the coca fields of the 
Chapare after his impoverished family migrated here from the high 
plains. He then rose through the ranks of the region's coca growers 
unions in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when American-backed troops 
were aggressively trying to eradicate every illegal coca plant in Bolivia.

In defiance, coca growers, or cocaleros, blockaded crucial roads and 
clashed with security forces. In a new biography of the president, 
the Argentine writer Martin Sivak describes one episode in which a 
group of Leopards beat Mr. Morales after he spoke at a rally, leaving 
him for dead. A photograph in the book shows the president as a wisp 
of a young man, lying beaten on a stretcher.

"The Chapare was the caldron of violence out of which Evo was born," 
said Jim Shultz, a political analyst in Cochabamba. "If there had not 
been a U.S. war on drugs, there would not have been a President Evo."

Now Mr. Morales governs from the presidential palace, where the walls 
are graced with portraits of him and Che Guevara by Gaston Ugalde, 
the enfant terrible of Bolivia's art scene who makes collage 
paintings from coca leaves. But in a twist to his pro-coca thinking, 
Mr. Morales has also sought to clamp down on cocaine.

First, in a nod to coca farmers, he nearly doubled the amount of land 
that growers can legally devote to growing coca, to about 49,400 
acres. But then he tried to make them stick to another rule that 
prevents them from devoting more than a cato, or less than half an 
acre, to growing coca.

Taking a page from cartels like OPEC, organizers in the Chapare coca 
growers unions, where doctrinaire support of the president is prized, 
fanned out to convince growers that the limit would dampen supply and 
keep coca prices stable.

The pressure worked on the growers, who were faced with stiff 
penalties for disobeying. It also helped create rare social peace in 
the Chapare. Growers earn about $100 a month from coca -- a tidy sum 
in a country where the minimum wage is about $70 a month -- while 
complementing that income with crops like rice, bananas and manioc.

Signs of relative prosperity have even emerged. A government-financed 
university to train schoolteachers is set to open soon, with a 
curriculum in both Quechua, an indigenous language, and Spanish. On 
weekends, traffic slows to a crawl in towns like Chimore as farmers 
take their newly acquired used minivans, known here as Surubis, out for a spin.

And while Venezuelan-financed projects to turn coca into products 
like shampoo and toothpaste have yet to materialize, coca farmers do 
not seem bothered that a large part of their crop becomes cocaine 
smuggled to Brazil and Argentina, its main markets.

"Now that we have a little money, we are treated like human beings," 
said Maria Eugenia Ledezma, 30, an official with the main coca 
growers union in the Chapare. "We'll die fighting before becoming 
slaves to the Americans or their lackeys in Bolivia."

Tenuous Cooperation

While Mr. Morales has directly challenged the United States, among 
other things requiring visas for American visitors, American 
officials have generally refrained from sparring publicly with Mr. 
Morales over coca policies, in part because the cooperation between 
them is so tenuous.antidrug

"Paradoxically, the United States has been far more tolerant of this 
regime than with governments in the past that were its friends," said 
Roberto Laserna, a political scientist in Cochabamba who studies the 
cocaine trade.

This uneasy status quo may be set to change. The Bolivian government 
was emboldened by a referendum this month, in which Mr. Morales's 
presidency was ratified by more than 67 percent of voters. Now the 
government plans to take over antinarcotics projects financed by the 
United States, according to Felipe Caceres, a coca grower who is Mr. 
Morales's drug czar, suggesting that Bolivia could become an even 
more assertive partner.

The tug of war leaves Colonel Cuevas, the commander of the Leopards' 
base, in an awkward position, thanking the United States for his 
livelihood while lauding Mr. Morales's defense of the coca leaf. He 
smiled, and with a soldier's reserve, pointed to an inscription on 
one of the walls at the base, "Atipasunchaj," which idealistically 
proclaims in Quechua, "We will prevail." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake