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New Bolivia President Vows To End U.S. Drug War In Country

by Jim Lobe

Latin America Drifting Left, Maybe Out Of U.S. Control

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- After years of demonizing Evo Morales, whose unprecedented first-round victory in Bolivia's presidential elections Sunday has stunned analysts here, the Bush administration must now decide whether to engage him.

If the administration is smart, according to most independent observers here, it will indeed try to engage Bolivia's president-elect, who they say has proven to be a pragmatic politician capable of compromise on a range of issues, even including coca production.

But given the administration's track record, they are not particularly confident of that result, particularly in view of Morales' friendships with what some right-wingers call the "axis of evil -- western hemisphere version," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

That fear has been especially acute among hawks in Vice President Dick Cheney's office and the Pentagon. In public remarks last summer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemsphere Affairs Roger Pardo Maurer warned that Castro rated Bolivia as his top priority just behind Venezuela.

"Bolivia is the set battle piece going on right now," he said. "It is not by any means inevitable that Bolivia should go to a Marxist, radical, anti-U.S., pro-Cuba, drug-producing state... But the other side is working very hard to take it that way."

Shortly afterward, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld himself charged, without providing details, that Cuba and Venezuela "have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways."

This view of Morales as a pawn for Castro and Chavez is dangerous and almost certain to put Washington and La Paz on a collision course, according to independent analysts.

"My fear is that there are a lot of people here who see Morales as very much aligned with Castro and Chavez, as someone who will be their adversary, and who poses a threat to our interests," according to Michael Shifter, an Andean specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue, a inter-regional think tank here.

"That will provoke a more confrontational reaction," he noted. "And if they cut all aid and support, it will become self-fulfilling."

Indeed, it was precisely the public threat by the U.S. ambassador in La Paz in 2002 that Washington would withhold aid and investment if Morales were elected president that year that catapulted the former leader of Bolivia's coca growers, or cocaleros, from obscurity to the second-round run-off, which he lost to Washington's favorite, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

While the administration was far more discreet this time around -- the State Department insisted Monday that it "will respect (the Bolivian people's) decision" -- it did not appear to make much difference.

Campaigning on a platform that promised the end of U.S.-financed coca eradication and of the so-called "Washington Consensus" for foreign investment-based economic development, Morales reportedly took 51 percent of the vote in a crowded field, giving him the presidency and a mandate far beyond that of any other president since the end of military rule in Bolivia more than 20 years ago.

"The highest first-round vote in the past was 36 percent, in 1993," noted John Walsh, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "From the point of view of democratic legitimacy, Evo has it more than any other politician in Bolivia since 1982, and the administration and Congress should recognize that."

Washington's main interest in Bolivia is related to its generation-long "war against drugs." In that respect, Morales, as a former cocalero who rose through the ranks to lead what became a national movement, has long been considered an enemy combatant. Indeed, some U.S. officials have even referred to him as drug trafficker and charged that drug traffickers have financed his political campaigns.

But, as in other key issue areas, Morales has shown pragmatism, according to Walsh, particularly by stressing the distinction between coca grown for traditional purposes and for drug trafficking.

"If he's saying yes to coca for traditional purposes, but no to cocaine trafficking, we need to take him seriously and engage him," he said. "There's no doubt that he has a mandate -- and a very strong one -- to chart a different course on drug policy than the U.S. has always pressed on Bolivia. But we also need to reexamine that policy and how much resentment it has caused there."

That is understood in some quarters in the administration, he added, noting that U.S. policymakers have recently made significant concessions to their Bolivian counterparts who argued in favor of exempting smallholders in the Chapare from the eradication program.

"It suggests a more pragmatic stance," according to Walsh, who also noted the recent replacement of the hard-liner Roger Noriega as the State Department's top Latin America aide by Thomas Shannon, a career foreign service officer. "I wouldn't be amazed if he wanted to try a more creative approach with Morales."

But even if the State Department offered more flexibility, it would still have to contend with other forces, such as the Pentagon's Pardo-Maurer and drug hawks in Congress, whose approach is likely to be far more rigid.

"I haven't seen any indication of a willingness to tolerate Morales' positions, and you have to remember that eradicating coca is a core element of U.S. drug policy," Shifter said. "This is where the passions are greatest, especially in Congress."

Moreover, any flexibility shown by Washington on eradication risks a domino effect through the rest of the Andes, according to Shifter's IAD colleague, Vinay Jawahar.

"As soon as they start talking about alternatives to eradication in Bolivia, the rest of the drug agenda comes tumbling down, because Colombia and Peru will want the same treatment," Jawahar said.

Washington currently provides nearly 100 million dollars in military aid and some 50 million dollars in economic assistance -- both as part of its counter-drug program, according to Adam Isacson, a drug war expert at the Center for International Policy (CIP) here.

He said the aid has played a key role in reducing coca cultivation from 70,000 hectares in the late 1980s to 30,000 hectares since the late 1990s. He said cultivation could double if Morales platform is translated into government policy.

Morales may want to cancel the military portion of that assistance, Isacson said, although he is likely to provoke resistance from the Bolivian military, a stronghold of the European elite whose nearly 200-year domination of the country is implicitly under challenge by Morales' historic victory.

That resistance -- as well as a long history of military coups in Bolivia, some supported by the U.S. -- will likely persuade Morales to act cautiously on that front in spite of his mandate, according to Isacson.

Given Bolivia's high poverty rates and its growing economic ties with its neighbors, particularly Argentina and Brazil, Morales will also have to tread carefully on issues regarding foreign investment and trade, according to Shifter, who noted that the president-elect softened his rhetoric on those issues during the campaign.

"This opens the possibility of some agreement with the U.S.," he said, adding, "Morales is someone who is going to have to chart his own course, and to say that ideologically he's in the same camp as Castro and Chavez gives U.S. very little clue as to how he's likely to govern."

"It's not the Cuban Revolution in 1959; it's not the windfall oil resources of Chavez. He's going to have to satisfy the expectations of a very poor and restless population, and he needs resources for that. Whether the administration and Congress are sensitive to that is another question."

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Albion Monitor December 19, 2005 (

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