Bolivia's drug crisis

Posted: Jan 05, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- While the Bush White House publicly brags about reduced coca production in South America's Andean region, there is dismay behind the scenes in the U.S. intelligence community. A recent classified National Intelligence summary reported there is not any scenario under current conditions that will continue aggressive eradication in Bolivia of coca, the crop used to produce cocaine. That threatens the unraveling of the long-standing U.S. anti-drug program based in Colombia.

The problem with the program, begun by the Clinton administration and continued under President Bush, is focusing South America entirely on counter-drug objectives rather than counter-insurgency concerns. The result in Bolivia has been deepening political turmoil after pro-coca forces helped oust a pro-American president. Although Bush policymakers look the other way, Latin America specialists in the government fear all progress made in Colombia will be undermined by narcotics operations based in Bolivia.

U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East and Central Asia ignores what is happening next door amid rising influence of a new clique of leftist, anti-American leaders. Evo Morales, Bolivia's rising radical, and Fidel Castro, Cuba's communist dictator, both were in Caracas Dec. 21 and 22 to meet with Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez. That was preceded by Jimmy Carter's visit to Bolivia where the former president, praising Morales as an "impressive" leader with a great future, undermined U.S. counter-drug policies.

These ominous developments have not been mentioned publicly by official Washington. "White House Hails Drops in Coca Cultivation in Bolivia, Peru," trumpeted the State Department propaganda apparatus on Nov. 25. A close reading of the handout reveals that coca production in Bolivia, not linked with Peru, actually increased in 2003.

Beyond numbers, the official U.S. line has little to do with reality. The backlash to U.S.-sponsored coca eradication in Bolivia was behind the violent ouster Oct. 17 as president of Washington's friend in La Paz, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. U.S. officials who have been there believe the momentum is rising. Since September, according to human rights groups, more than 120 have been killed in Bolivian political deaths (not to mention the "disappeared").

On Dec. 11, suspected ELN-B terrorists, who are coca growers in the Chapare region and members of Evo Morales's Socialist Movement, were arrested. They were released four days later after Morales talked to President Carlos Mesa. On Dec. 12, explosives were thrown at a U.S.-funded rural electrical project, substantiating complaints by U.S. aid personnel that they are unprotected. On Dec. 17, three ELN-B operatives were arrested for transporting a large cache of 81-millimeter shells to Chapare, a center of coca eradication.

To combat these developments, the U.S. in the last year provided only $500,000 for Bolivia's military and police compared with $90 million for coca eradication. Bolivian security forces are well equipped for anti-coca operations in the jungle but have been given neither equipment nor training to maintain public order even for a single day.

Here is a latter-day domino effect. Dissenting officials in the U.S. government believe Bolivia is becoming what the Pentagon calls an "ungoverned area." They fear that Colombia's narcoterrorists will switch their growing and processing operations to Bolivia, making irrelevant U.S. counter-drug policy in Colombia. That prospect is privately viewed by Colombian officials as fully realistic and as a catastrophe, returning the situation in the Andes to where it was in the bad old days of the 1980s.

As this crisis built in La Paz, former President Carter arrived there on Dec. 17. Evo Morales, seen by U.S. officials as involved in terrorism and behind the ouster of President Sanchez de Lozada, had just threatened to bring down President Mesa's government if eight ELN-B terrorists were not released. Carter sat down with Morales to tell him he supported a pause in Chapare coca eradication while the United Nations studies the program. So much for U.S. policy.

Nobel peace laureate Carter also expressed support for land-locked Bolivia's revanchist dreams of acquiring access to the sea by regaining lost territory from Chile and Peru. In Caracas, President Chavez revealed he "had dreams of swimming on a Bolivian beach." In Havana, Castro promptly voiced support. These developments were duly noted by a few, but mostly ignored in Washington.