Bolivian Leader's Stance on Coca Raises U.S. Concerns

Bolivian President-Elect Evo Morales has promised to allow more coca farming, which has renewed a debate in Washington over the U.S. drug war and its heavy emphasis on coca crop eradication. Morales has said his government will try to interdict drugs, but he wants to preserve the legal market for coca leaves.

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A former coca farmer will be inaugurated next month as Bolivia's new president. Evo Morales has promised to allow more coca farming. That has renewed a debate in Washington since much of the coca crop becomes cocaine. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELLE KELEMEN reporting:

At the State Department the undersecretary for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, is adamant that the war on drugs is succeeding and the US sees no need to change its policy in the wake of Evo Morales' rise to power.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Undersecretary, Political Affairs, State Department): This is a core national security interest. It touches every city in the United States. And so, our policy has been successful. And what we hope is that the new government of Evo Morales in Bolivia does not change course, does not try to assert that somehow it's fine to growth coca and fine to sell it to the Americans and Canadians north of their border. It's not fine to do that.

KELEMEN: Morales has said his government will step up efforts to interdict drugs, but he wants to preserve the legal market for coca leaves. Morales draws a distinction between the coca leaf and cocaine, as does another critic of the drug war, Sanho Treet of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Mr. SANHO TREET (Institute for Policy Studies): Trying to compare coca leaf to cocaine is a bit like trying to compare coffee beans to methamphetamines. There's universe of difference between the two, and we have to respect that indigenous cultures have used and continue to use coca in its traditional form, which is almost impossible to abuse in its natural state by chewing and consuming in tea.

KELEMEN: Even the US Embassy in Bolivia recognizes this, he says. On its Web site, the embassy advises travelers to drink coca tea if they start feeling nauseous from altitude sickness.

There are some local efforts to keep the legal coca farming in check, according to Katherine Ledebur, of the Andean Information Network. She believes that this cooperative approach has been more effective than forced eradication programs. But you may not see that in the data, Ledebur says, because there's so much pressure on officials in coca farming regions of Bolivia to show that the forced eradication is succeeding.

Ms. KATHERINE LEDEBUR (Andean Information Network): Officials on the ground, anti-narcotics officials in the Chapare, lie to their superiors or misrepresent the situation. And this happens all the way to Cochabamba to La Paz to Washington. So that my feeling is is that the people who are actually making the high-level decisions do not have the information that they need to make an educated decision.

KELEMEN: A recent report by the Government Accountability Office raises skepticism about the figures the US government uses to show progress in the war on drugs. The investigative arm of Congress said in the report that, while the US has poured $6 billion into the drug war in the Andes over the past five years, mainly in Colombia, the number of drug users in the US has remained roughly constant. The report is likely to add fuel to the debate over the future of Plan Colombia, that country's counterinsurgency and drug war strategy which expired in September. The US remains a supporter and a financial backer according to Nicholas Burns, the number three official at the State Department.

Mr. BURNS: We think Plan Colombia's been a great success, and our administration is asking the Congress to continue funding over the next several years to help the Colombian people finish the job in fighting the terrorists and fighting the narco traffickers.

KELEMEN: A recent report by the Congressional Research Service says that's there's been a decrease in violence in Colombia and measurable progress in that country's internal security, but that report says there's been no effect on the price, purity and availability of cocaine in the US.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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