It may be difficult to conceive of an American president doing more to alienate the French than George W. Bush has. But imagine, for a moment, how Paris would have reacted if, during Prohibition, Calvin Coolidge had begun paying the French government huge sums of money to burn its country's vineyards. It seems a safe assumption that the hypothetical French prime minister who collaborated with such a policy wouldn't have lasted long in office.
Burning Prohibition-era French vineyards may seem like a ludicrous scenario, but it's more or less analogous to the current U.S. policy of coca eradication in Latin America. So it should come as little surprise that Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned earlier this month amid growing popular opposition to his support of American eradication efforts in his country.
For Bolivia's indigenous majority, coca is not just another plant. People have been chewing coca leaves on the altiplano -- the windswept Andean plateau that stretches through the eastern third of Bolivia and parts of Peru -- for about 4,000 years, and to this day coca occupies an incredibly central role in indigenous culture. "Coca leaves are used in everyday interactions in Aymara and Quechua culture as gestures of friendship, like exchanging a cigarette or a cup of coffee," says University of Illinois anthropologist Andrew Orta, who studies the region. Aside from being chewed, the coca leaf is used in tea, rubbed on cuts and employed during ritual offerings to local deities. Because coca is grown and chewed mostly by the country's indigenous majority, it has also become an expression of identity. Across Bolivia, graffiti, signs and T-shirts proclaim, "The Coca Leaf is Not A Drug!"
Coca became a growth industry in the 1980s, largely as result of American-backed neoliberal economic reforms instituted by none other than Sanchez de Lozada, who was Bolivia's finance minister at the time. According to Kevin Healy of the Inter-American Foundation, an independent agency of the U.S. government that provides grants to groups in Latin America, those neoliberal reforms may have helped Latin American agribusiness develop new and unfamiliar export crops such as soy and citrus, but they also allowed cheap foreign competition to decimate the market for traditional crops grown by poor farmers. With their livelihoods in the balance, thousands of these farmers began to stream into the Chapare region of Bolivia to grow coca.
Ironically, coca became the only global market that small farms in Bolivia had access to, and, as a result, an economic lifeline in South America's poorest country. The crop is grown on small plots of land by subsistence farmers, who can make 10 to 15 times on coca what they could on anything else. "You ask in a free-market agricultural economy, 'What are you going to do?' You go for that," says Alan Kolata, a University of Chicago anthropologist who has been studying Bolivia for 25 years, of the reason farmers opted for coca.
Whatever you think of the war on drugs, it is undeniable that when Bolivian soldiers and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents destroy coca fields, they imperil the very survival of the families that grow the crop. The U.S. and Bolivian governments have repeatedly promised to devote resources to so-called alternative development -- money to purchase seeds and irrigate fields to grow other crops -- but this has been mostly talk. During the presidency of Hugo Banzer, who governed the country from 1997 to 2001, between 80 percent and 90 percent of the country's coca crop was destroyed, removing approximately $500 million (in U.S. dollars) from the economy, or roughly 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product. During that time, only $80 million was invested in alternative development -- and given government corruption and graft, it's safe to assume that significantly less than that actually trickled down to the farmers.
Facing economic annihilation, Bolivia's coca growers -- numbering somewhere around 50,000 -- have organized, and over the past year they have emerged as the single most powerful political force in the country. Evo Morales, the leader of the cocaleros, as they are known, is the most visible voice of opposition, and he finished a close second in the 2002 presidential election, after U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee's condemnation of him sent his poll numbers surging.
Current Bolivian resistance to U.S. policy is probably made stronger by the nation's history of victimization at the hands of foreign powers. A series of territorial losses to neighboring countries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries greatly diminished Bolivia's access to valuable natural resources and cut off its outlet to the sea. Against this backdrop, the presence of U.S. DEA agents is even more inflammatory, and recent reports in a Bolivian newsweekly that American military advisers were directing the military's response to the demonstrations fanned the flames of growing anti-American sentiment. (This summer, on the outskirts of Sucre -- a vibrant, cosmopolitan city in central Bolivia -- I saw a piece of graffiti that read, "Come on Osama, more, more, we support you!" It was the only such graffiti I saw in five months of traveling in South America).
Just as the rhetoric of "liberation and freedom" that the Bush administration used to justify the Iraq War has failed to resonate with the majority of those in the Arab world, our sanctimonious sermons about the war on drugs are seen by most Bolivians as self-serving at best and vile slanders at worst. While any discussion of cocaine in the United States conjures images of venal drug lords, inner-city shoot-outs and desperate addicts, the Bolivian discourse that surrounds the coca leaf is associated with cultural heritage, sacred ritual, resistance to foreign interference and hardworking peasant farmers claiming their right to grow what they want on their own land.
Bolivians, most of whom have never even seen cocaine, don't view American drug use as their responsibility, a sentiment that even U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed to echo in testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee in May of 2001. "The real problem in the region is not caused by the region," Powell said. "It is caused by what happens on the streets of New York, the streets of all our other major cities." Why then, Bolivians ask, should they have to pay the price for America's problem?
"You can think of coca in the way you think about small arms," says David Mares, a political-science professor at the University of California, San Diego. "The United States has a huge market for small arms. It's legal to purchase and own small arms in the United States. Is the United States in favor of the export of small arms from the U.S. to criminal gangs in Mexico, to ordinary citizens in countries where you are not allowed to have guns? No, the U.S. isn't in favor of that, but the U.S. says the responsibility is on those countries to enforce their laws. It's not the responsibility of the United States to ensure that our right to bear arms doesn't lead to leakage."
America would unquestionably be a better place with fewer people addicted to cocaine, lower levels of violence between rival drug gangs and fewer inner-city teens lured away from other enterprises to make their living off the drug trade. But there is not a single piece of evidence to suggest that slashing coca fields in Bolivia has brought us any closer to realizing these goals.
Since 1996, when the Bolivian government initiated a five-year plan to eliminate all illegal coca, the number of emergency-room patients admitted to U.S. hospitals because of cocaine has risen slightly. Meanwhile, the percentage of people using cocaine in all age groups has, from month to month during that time, either remained constant or grown slightly.
"Years of policy have demonstrated that going after supply is not what's going to make a difference," says Mares. "There is no relation between the amount of coca supply and the amount of cocaine used. There is a relationship between the use of cocaine and the production of coca. The arrow goes the other way. Experts over and over again have argued for a number of years . . . that going after the production isn't going to get us what we want. So, if it's not going to give us what we want, why go after it?"
By any conceivable metric, our eradication policy has failed. It has sown civil unrest, impoverished thousands of already desperately poor farmers, fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment and done nothing to reduce drug use in the United States. Unfortunately, the ideology of the war on drugs, like that of the war on terrorism, has developed an internal logic that is impervious to any sort of empirical puncture. But as the administration is learning in Iraq, reality has a way of catching up with ideology. If you don't believe it, just ask the former president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.