Why Bolivian President Morales Still Heads Coca Growers Union

ANALYSIS

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Years before leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales was elected to office in 2006, he chaired the country's coca growers union, a post which he was recently re-elected to and has held since 1996.

Having been a coca farmer himself for many years, Morales has been an ardent supporter of coca leaf cultivation despite the U.N.'s classification of the crop -- which is the base ingredient for cocaine -- as an illegal substance under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Morales, a member of the Aymara indigenous group, has argued that coca leaf-chewing, which provides mild stimulation, is an integral part of indigenous Andean cultures that has been practiced for centuries and served as a traditional herbal remedy.

Coca leaf chewing is a thousand-year-old ancestral practice of the Andean indigenous peoples that cannot and should not be prohibited, wrote Morales in a 2009 appeal to the U.N. to amend the Convention.

Today it is practiced by millions of people in Bolivia, Peru, northern Argentina and Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. Its symbolic significance has ceremonial, religious and sociocultural connotations that transcend the sphere of indigenous cultures, extending also to mestizo groups.

Morales had previously demanded that the U.N. legalize small-scale cultivation of coca leaf for personal use as a traditional remedy, though objecting countries, including the U.S. and Mexico, have rejected the proposed amendments due to concerns that cultivation of any kind would contribute to cocaine trafficking.

[T]otal rejection of Bolivia's amendment proposal will not make the issue disappear, wrote Minority Rights Group International in a March 2011 article. What is required is a constructive dialogue to solve the legal ambiguities, while at the same time respecting the rights and practices of the country's indigenous population.

A 'Conflict Of Interest'

While Morales has demonstrated advocacy of indigenous people's rights regarding coca-leaf cultivation, his dual position as head of state and chairman of a powerful union within Bolivia raises questions about his political motivations.

It's always struck me as a conflict of interest, said Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C.-based policy analysis and research organization focused on transnational issues in the Western Hemisphere.

I think it's simply a desire to exercise power on an important sector in the economy. It gives him (Morales) added power and leverage -- he's not giving that up.

Shifter added that he views Morales' grip on the coca growers union as an attempt to shore up eroding support among his political base, which primarily consists of the South American country's poor and working class, including indigenous groups.

A major point of conflict between Morales and his base has been his administration's efforts to advocate for coca growers while cracking down on illicit cultivation of the plant for cocaine production.

Earlier in January, about 400 Bolivian coca growers in the town of La Asunta peacefully turned back 20 soldiers carrying out a government initiative to clamp down on coca leaf production beyond legal limits.

Local unions, not aligned with Morales, argued that they were within legal limits.

Under Bolivian law, roughly 20,000 acres (12,000 hectares) are allowed for coca leaf cultivation, though it is estimated that over 76,000 acres (30,900 hectares) are currently under cultivation, according to InSight Crime, a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on research and analysis of crime in Latin America.

Last November, Morales said that he would eradicate about 20,500 acres (10,000 hectares) of coca leaf crops by the end of 2011, a pledge which was met, drawing ire from many local growers.

Morales has to tread a fine line between alienating his support base among indigenous coca-growers and allowing the production of coca that will be funneled into cocaine production, InSight Crime wrote in a January article. The recent clashes in La Asunta suggest the balance has not been reached in this area.

Despite, the Morales administration's efforts to contain coca leaf cultivation, production has risen 12 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to InSight Crime contributor William W. Cummings.

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