To put it lightly, the U.S. government has a history of overstaying its welcome. Most are powerless to stand up to the military giant for fear of being cut off from much-needed financial assistance. This is what makes Evo Morales special. He is the current president of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, that happens to be one of the top three global producers of cocaine. In 2008, President Morales expelled the U.S. government and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from Bolivia’s borders.
The U.S. heads nearly all United Nations coalitions committed to fighting drug production and trafficking, and their tendency to invade and take over countries does not stop across the world in countries rich in resources, including our neighbors to the south. The DEA’s history in Latin America is rife with such violence and failed tactics that it’s a wonder they are allowed to continue to operate in the manner that they do. Morales, wondering the exact same thing, decided it’s time for a change.
Morales’ Coca-Growing Past and Rise to Power
Bolivia is the only country exempt from a worldwide ban on coca leaf production. And if the name didn’t tip you off, coca leaves are one of the main ingredients in North America’s favorite party drug, cocaine. Morales actually worked as a coca farmer and rose to power as head of a coca growers union. As a man of indigenous descent, he promoted the traditional uses of coca leaves, which users chew or drink (as tea) for energy, and coca leaves were all over his campaign posters. Crazy, right?
Even more astonishing is Morales’ colorful history with the DEA. The Bolivian government underwent a grueling militaristic rule under Carlos Mesa, who gladly opened the door to Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs tactics, inviting the U.S. military and the installation of UMOPAR, a Bolivian police force committed to enforcing American drug laws. Their troubled drug war tactics included aerial fumigations that would wipe out all sorts of crops and natural vegetation in an attempt to reduce coca production.
“The U.S. uses drug trafficking and terrorism for political control” - Bolivian President Evo Morales
These interventions extended beyond UMOPAR’s corruptibility and overuse of violence and truly undermined Bolivia’s democracy. How did Bolivian officials expect respect for a president who so easily bent to the will of the U.S. government? Forced eradication of a crop that contributed up to 40 percent of Bolivia’s GDP had obvious implications for economic development and the ability of Bolivians to make a decent living. In response, Morales led a nationwide protest to end the militaristic rule in his passionate country, and these historic accomplishments eventually won him the presidency.
As a president, the first thing he did was reject the U.S. economic policy of neoliberalism and free trade agreements, which he referred to as “economic genocide” and a “neocolonial project,” in which the U.S. took advantage of countries poor and desperate enough to accept any sort of economic arrangement with the hegemonic powerhouse.
"The [drug] war made the American government's intentions clear to the people of Chapare (a region where coca leaves are primarily grown). Behind the war on drugs there are other interests. Interests in natural resources, and in dismantling the unions in the Chapare," said Feliciano Mamani, a leader in Morales' political party and a coca grower.
Not to be outspoken, the U.S. shot back. “If radicals continue to hijack the indigenous movement, we could find ourselves faced with a narco-state that supports the uncontrolled cultivation of coca," General James T. Hill, a U.S. army commander with the Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee in March 2004, referring to Morales' movement.
Radical is only one of the harsh words used to describe Morales. He has even been compared to the Taliban after he literally expelled the U.S. from his country. In 2008, he kicked out U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and later ended all relations with the DEA, accusing them of inciting anti-government feelings by funding groups dedicated to toppling his rule.
Evo vs. the U.S. Government
Despite criticism from the U.S., coca leaf production under Morales has declined significantly—about 10 percent a year since 2011. In expelling the DEA, he promised to nationalize the fight against drug trafficking by using his connections in the coca-growing world to obtain the cooperation from coca farmers in reducing production levels.
"[Drug trafficking] must be fought—we are convinced of that—and we are doing so more effectively and more wisely," Morales told Al Jazeera in a 2014 interview. "When the United States was in control of counternarcotics, the U.S. government used drug trafficking for purely geopolitical purposes…. The U.S. uses drug trafficking and terrorism for political control…. We have nationalized the fight against drug trafficking."
Despite these successes, the Obama Administration has accused Bolivia of “[failing] demonstrably to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements” and has actually “decertified” the little country, citing their lack of cooperation in combating the drug trade. Even more insidious is the discovery of Operation Naked King run by the DEA where top Bolivian officials were secretly indicted as cocaine traffickers as a way to collapse Morales’ government.
Interestingly, cocaine production in Bolivia has fallen significantly, but according to 2015 statistics from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, coca production increased between 44 and 52 percent in 2014 once again making it the top producer in the world. This occurred despite Plan Colombia—a program in which the U.S. dumped nearly $10 billion in anti-drug efforts—that involved significant DEA intervention in the South American country. Furthermore, U.S. vilification of Bolivian policies comes in the face of the U.N. praising the landlocked country’s progressive policies for being so much more effective than their neighbors at reducing coca leaf production.
The reason why the U.S. continues to fight these lose-lose battles with drug cartels in South America is baffling. President Morales has assumed chairmanship with the Group of 77 Nations and will use this platform to promote the international legalization of coca leaves. He believes that legalizing the natural plant will allow people to use it traditionally, and he can combat drug trafficking by being able to more closely regulate the plant’s use. Likewise, more than 40,000 Bolivians depend on coca cultivation for their livelihoods, and such a move would allow them to continue to live decent lives.
What we’re seeing today is that legalization has amazing implications for reducing drug cartel profits. For example, Time magazine reported in April 2015 that cannabis seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border have been getting smaller and smaller, principally due to the fact that state legalization of cannabis has reduced demand for Mexican weed. Even more importantly, violence in the region is declining. When Mexico fully integrated the DEA’s drug war tactics with Felipe Calderón in charge (2006 to 2012), more than 164,000 people were murdered. That’s more killings than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined since the U.S. went to war. Last year, Mexico reported slightly more than 15,000 deaths in relation to the drug war, which is much lower than the 2011 peak of 23,000. Cannabis legalization in Colorado, Oregon, Washington State, D.C. and Alaska likely contributed to the significant drop. Could we expect the same results from legalizing coca?
While it’s clear that the DEA won’t eagerly showcase this information as a reason to rejuvenate their drug war tactics, Morales will hopefully inspire other Latin American leaders to take matters into their own hands and regain their independence, both politically and economically.