February 13, 2004

Center for International Policy

In November 2002, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a pro-business, pro-U.S. figure known by his nickname “Goni,” paid a visit to the White House. The two presidents discussed Bolivia’s U.S.-supported program of military and police-led eradication of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Goni was worried about the eradication program’s economic impact. Without a $150 million boost in emergency aid to cushion the blow to thousands of coca-growing families, Goni told Bush, “I may be back here in a year, this time seeking political asylum.”

President Bush was reportedly amused. According to The New York Times, Bush “told his visitor that all heads of state had tough problems and wished him good luck.” [1]

Goni’s prophecy turned out to be right on target. In October 2003, eleven months after being sent back to La Paz empty-handed, a month of escalating protests forced him to take a one-way journey to Miami. The demonstrations, blockades and other unrest, which met with a violent reaction from Goni’s security forces, were sparked by plans to build a natural-gas pipeline from landlocked Bolivia to the Chilean port of Mejillones (which belonged to Bolivia until a 19th-century war).

The protests soon became an outlet for expressing a variety of pent-up grievances against the government. These, the Andean Information Network’s Katherine Ledebur notes, included “demands for better wages, reform of anti-drug legislation, rejection of a law imposing prison terms for people participating in road blockades, and repudiation of the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).” [2] Anti-pipeline and anti-globalization sentiment were only part of a larger set of demands; Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

Indifference to the unpopular president’s predicament cost the U.S. government one of its strongest allies in the Andean region. However, Goni’s vice president and immediate successor, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, has assured Bush administration officials that Bolivia will continue the U.S.-mandated coca eradication program.

Mesa’s days could be numbered, though; renewed protests may be imminent. As the former journalist and political unknown came into office, leaders of the September-October protests announced that they would grant him 90 days to heed their demands. That period has now expired. “More than 100 days have passed and there are no signs of change,” radical labor leader Roberto de la Cruz recently argued. “After 100 days we can say he is the face of neo-colonization, he has shown continuity”with the Sánchez government. [3]

The same forces that brought down his predecessor will soon engulf Mesa unless La Paz and Washington change course.

A president with few options

Mesa is in trouble for three key reasons. First, his political opponents – especially indigenous activists and coca growers (known as cocaleros) – are strong and well-organized. Second, U.S. policy toward Bolivia rigidly adheres to anti-drug priorities above all other interests; an insistence on coca eradication backed by the threat of U.S. aid withdrawal deprives Mesa of the ability to deal flexibly with his opponents’ demands. Third, Mesa has little political experience and no party or power base to rely on when making difficult decisions.

Bolivia’s primarily Aymara and Quechua-speaking indigenous population makes up some sixty percent of the population. Historically treated as second-class citizens, they account for a disproportionate share of the two-thirds of Bolivians living in poverty.

The most prominent indigenous political leader is Felipe Quispe, an Aymara who founded the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (MIP) in 2000. As a presidential candidate in 2002, the strongly left-leaning Quispe came in fifth out of eleven contenders, with 6.1 percent of the vote. [4] The MIP gained six representatives in Bolivia’s 157-seat National Congress. [5] Observers labeled Quispe’s performance historic, as no indigenous party had ever gained more than three percent.

After this electoral success and their participation in the September-October protests, indigenous Bolivians are feeling newly empowered. An Aymara activist told The Washington Post just days after Goni’s forced resignation, “I feel that the Aymara nation has exerted itself finally and stood up for its rights. I feel that we are strong now and can never go back to being pushed around and ignored and neglected.” [6] He added a warning to Mesa: “We are willing to give our new president a chance, but he needs to understand that if he fails us, we will do the same to him.” [7]

Quispe echoed this sentiment as he stood next to the newly inaugurated president in October. “Here is a mestizo who can help us.” [8] If Mesa lives up to his promises, “he will be our friend.” But if he does not, “that’s to say he’s a friend of the gringos, and will be our enemy.” [9]

Despite indications that Mesa would have a grace period, the hard-liner immediately made clear his distrust of the new president. Before the month of October was out, he had refused to “sacrifice more than a month of protests for a simple change in personnel, because the capitalist or imperialist system is still in place.” [10] He had observed that “Carlos Mesa and Goni for me are like husband and wife: They are of the same formula.” [11] And he had threatened “a civil war to obtain power,” specifying that “in April there are going to be problems.” [12]

Mesa faces a far more formidable political opponent in the head of the coca growers’ union, Evo Morales, an indigenous activist whose supporters also played a leading role in the September-October uprising.

Morales’ Six Federations coca growers union, an organization of approximately 35,000 small-scale coca farmers has been at the center of opposition to the Bolivian government’s U.S.-supported eradication operations. [13]

Bolivia’s indigenous population has a long tradition of coca cultivation. The crop has not traditionally been refined into cocaine, though. Coca has several legal uses; many Bolivians use the leaves as a stimulant, an appetite suppressant, and a means to counteract the effects of high Andean altitudes. In some cases, it serves ceremonial purposes. Bolivian law currently allows 12,000 hectares (1 hectare = 2 ½ acres) of coca to be grown legally for these purposes.

Bolivia’s cocaleros, especially in the poor, historically neglected Chapare region, grew more organized in the late 1990s in the face of the “Dignity Plan,” an ambitious, military-police eradication effort that President Hugo Bánzer (1997-2001) undertook with U.S. support. (Unlike Colombia, where coca is eradicated by aircraft spraying herbicides, Bolivia’s military and police eradicate forcibly, uprooting the coca plants by hand.) In his effort to eradicate all Bolivian coca by 2002, Bánzer’s forces committed abuses and greatly outpaced efforts to provide legal economic alternatives to peasants whose livelihood was eradicated.

The result was a growing movement of peasants protesting the government’s heavy-handed tactics and seeking to negotiate the amount of legal coca, the terms of eradication and the availability of alternative development assistance. Massive demonstrations and road blockages have been common in the Chapare region, along with increasing violence.

The cocalero movement propelled Morales to political prominence in Bolivia. He was elected to congress as a leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) political party. In 2002, he surprised everyone – probably even himself – by finishing a close second to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in presidential elections. Buoyed by U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha’s threat to cut off all aid should he win, Morales benefited from a wave of protest votes, finishing only one and a half percentage points away from the presidency in the first round of voting. As no one received a majority, Bolivia’s electoral laws required that Congress choose the president. They chose Sánchez de Lozada, who finished first but won only 22 percent of the vote.

Morales’ MAS, with 35 seats, is the second-strongest bloc in Congress behind Goni’s Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR). As is true of Quispe, there is no shortage of anti-American, anti-capitalist rhetoric coming from Morales. His supporters continue to agitate for more legal coca and a negotiated, non-military effort to eradicate illegal coca.

However, Morales has so far seemed more sympathetic than Quispe to President Mesa’s position. Shortly after Goni’s ouster, Morales told an interviewer that Mesa “needs time, and we’ll give him time. A lot will depend on some clear signs that he is trying to change the economic model and political system.” [14] Morales has not cast his lot with those currently calling for renewed unrest. According to The Miami Herald, he has made it clear that he hopes Mesa will hold onto power at least until December, when MAS is expected to make huge gains in the nationwide municipal elections. [15]

Moreover, Morales and Quispe have never had a good relationship; Quispe’s politics are more radical. Quispe recently questioned on the subject of his sour relations with Morales replied, “While we’re fighting, they are on the sidelines, happily out on the balcony watching us until the end. Then, when we are just about to bring down the government, they join the fight. That is how they always play, dirty.” [16] For the time being, then, President Mesa’s opposition is not unified.

Nonetheless, political and economic conditions could cause this opposition to coalesce again. Of primary importance is a general feeling that the “neoliberal” economic reforms enacted over the past decade enriched Bolivia’s elite while the poor majority has seen its living standards stagnate or worsen. If the Mesa government does not show signs of moving to address these conditions, it could very well end up facing the “people power” that paralyzed the Sánchez de Lozada government.

U.S. policy

In addition, there is resentment of perceived U.S. political and economic intervention in Bolivia’s affairs. Many Bolivians see Washington acting through its leading role in the international economic institutions that have pushed neoliberal reform, as well as through its insistence on coca eradication without conditions.

The United States’ hard line on coca eradication, and its refusal to grant more economic aid to cushion the economic blow, has left Mesa with little room to maneuver. U.S. officials have appeared oblivious to the destabilizing effect of their narrow pursuit of coca eradication.

Economic aid, military aid and eradication

While the United States gives Bolivia economic aid totaling about $100 million annually, the U.S. commitment has not increased since 2000, and no growth is foreseen for 2005. In the rural zones where the cocalero and indigenous leaders get their political support, U.S. military and police aid are far more visible than economic development assistance. In fact, the eradication measures taken – usually against smallholding peasants with no better economic options – have been unusually harsh.

The Bolivian police and military units responsible for anti-drug operations owe their existence, and most of their budgets, to the U.S. government. A U.S.-funded Joint Eradication Task Force (JTF) – consisting of 1,600 military, police and civilian personnel – was created in 1998 and given primary responsibility for forced eradication. The JTF met with resistance from coca-growers and responded forcefully. During three violent months in 1998, Ledebur documents, violence between the JTF and coca growers killed thirteen cocaleros and three members of the security forces. [17]

Another unit, the Expeditionary Task Force (ETF), was formed in 2001, at the Bolivian government’s request, to keep order in the Chapare region while coca eradication proceeded. Although led by military commanders, the ETF was not formally made up of military or police officers; the Bolivian government’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Ana María Romero, labeled its members “mercenaries.” [18] With funding from the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. embassy and training from the embassy’s Military Group, the ETF was widely alleged to have committed numerous human rights violations in the Chapare region. [19] The ETF, which was intended to be a temporary mechanism, was disbanded in early 2003.

The militarized strategy has not borne results. While the “Dignity Plan” reduced coca cultivation during the late 1990s (while cultivation increased in Colombia), Bolivian coca has increased steadily since 2000, including a 17 percent rise from 2001 to 2002. [20] While failing to meet its objective, the eradication program has had severe effects on the population of coca-growing zones.

In addition to conflicts with the security forces, eradication has denied 50,000 farmers their means of making a living, reducing incomes from $240 to $700 million a year. [21] Since two-thirds of Bolivia’s 9 million citizens already live on less than $2 a day, the economic shock is hard to overestimate.

The United States has not done enough to cushion this shock. U.S. foreign aid programs have spent about $228.5 million since 2000 on alternative development, an average of $47 million per year. At first glance that figure may seem high. However, it has lagged far behind Bolivia’s aggressive eradication efforts. The U.S. General Accounting Office noted in 2002, “The rapid pace of the Bolivian government’s eradication campaign has created gaps between eradication and alternative development assistance that can leave peasant farmers without livelihoods.” [22] Tens of thousands of Bolivian farmers, many of them former employees of shut-down tin mines, make their living growing coca, and the combination of forced eradication and feeble alternatives has bred strong resentment. Evo Morales and his coca-growers’ union are the embodiment of this anger.

Cocalero resistance to eradication has at times been violent, ranging from rock-throwing to booby-trapped coca fields to the rare armed ambush. As often happens, the United States has chosen to confront violence, the symptom, rather than poverty, the cause. U.S. officials are urging a harder line and more use of force against organized coca-growers.

Negotiate with cocaleros?

This hard line includes a refusal to allow Bolivia to consider one of the coca-growers’ key demands: a reform to limits on legal coca cultivation. Law 1008, passed in 1988 under heavy U.S. pressure, is Bolivia’s chief drug control legislation. It states that no more than 12,000 hectares of coca may be grown for traditional uses in Bolivia. Cocaleros are asking for a temporary pause in eradication while a re-evaluation of the size of the legal coca market takes place. They are calling for an independent institution to “carry out an in-depth study of legal coca markets in Bolivia,” claiming that the “internal consumption and export of legal coca to Argentina have increased well beyond the limits established by law.” [23]

According to Ledebur, U.S. opposition to any pause in eradication has repeatedly broken negotiations between the cocaleros and the government. If it were to occur, Ledebur argues, an agreement would represent “a significant step forward in meeting coca growers’ demands while allowing the government to eradicate coca production not destined for the legal market.” [24]

The U.S. response is unequivocal: “A pause in eradication is a pause in development,” and will not be tolerated, Ambassador David Greenlee said last year. [25] Greenlee repeatedly reminds Bolivians that U.S. aid depends on adherence to a “zero coca” policy for the Chapare region.


U.S. policymakers are going beyond mere opposition to dialogue with the cocaleros. Citing cocaleros’ occasionally violent resistance to eradication, U.S. officials are increasingly using the language of the “war on terror” in their characterizations of Bolivia’s organized coca growers. Some in Washington have sought to link cocalero violence to Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), citing the alleged finding of ELN pamphlets in the belongings of several recently arrested cocaleros. Repeatedly referring to “ELN-B terrorists,” conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak recently devoted an entire column to cocalero violence and arrests. [26] As with most of Novak’s periodic pieces on Latin America, his views closely paralleled those of key Congressional Republicans.

Along with the “war on terror” language, we are hearing calls to provide Bolivia with significant non-drug military aid for the first time since the Cold War. As Novak argued, while Bolivian security forces are well equipped for anti-coca operations, they “have been given neither the equipment nor training to maintain public order even for a single day.”[27]

In fact, the Bush administration’s just-released 2005 Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations includes funds for equipment and training of a new Bolivian army “counter-terrorism unit.” [28] What that means – especially in a country with no groups on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations – is far from clear.

The use of the term “terrorism” misses the point. Some cocaleros may be responding violently, but they are not terrorists. They do not attack civilian targets with the intention of striking terror in the general public and furthering a political agenda.

More troops and training will not put food on the farmers’ tables. To the contrary, this response would only exacerbate tensions that have already reached a dangerous pitch, sparking new violence. The $38.5 million for alternative development in the FY 2004 budget does not even come close to being enough to ease rural Bolivians’ desperation. [29]


The pressures on Mesa are growing: on one side, from the increasingly vocal indigenous and cocalero constituencies; on the other, from an increasingly rigid U.S. government. The president, who recently announced a series of unpopular tax increases and spending cuts, has few options.

In its current form, U.S. policy toward Bolivia is counterproductive. It almost appears as though its objective is to weaken a friendly, pro-market government in La Paz. A more productive policy must give Carlos Mesa more flexibility, and do far more to address the roots of discontent in Bolivia. Washington cannot afford to remain blinded by its fixation on coca eradication.

As a first step, the U.S. should negotiate, or support the Bolivian government’s negotiation, with the cocaleros. A temporary pause in eradication while an independent study determines the size of the legal coca market would be in the United States’ long-term interest. It would give greater legitimacy to the U.S. eradication policy by righting any wrong that exists in Law 1008. Moreover, it would ensure greater compliance with U.S. policy, as the coca growers have agreed to abide by new coca eradication targets that result from the study. [30]

Second, new eradication targets would meet the least resistance if the farmers can be sure that they will still be able to provide for their families. The U.S. government must dramatically increase funding for alternative development efforts and coordinate them much more closely with eradication.

In addition, Bolivia’s crisis calls for macro-economic assistance in the short term. While Washington has acknowledged the urgency of Bolivia’s crisis, calling on other countries to provide greater economic support during a January 2004 Bolivia Support Group meeting, it must lead by example by increasing its own stagnating levels of economic assistance.

Finally, U.S. officials must avoid public perceptions that they are meddling in Bolivia’s affairs. In the current climate, these perceptions can only backfire by strengthening anti-U.S. figures, as occurred when the U.S. ambassador criticized Evo Morales shortly before the 2002 elections.

These policy changes could greatly ease the mounting pressure on Mesa. And they cannot happen soon enough. Recent press coverage indicates that Bolivians are again stocking up on food, water and cooking gas in fear of imminent protests. According to de la Cruz, the labor leader, the opposition is “recruiting leaders to organize a popular, pacific but confrontational rebellion.” [31]

By showing more balance and flexibility, the United States can help reduce coca production and alleviate poverty in Bolivia. By giving Mesa the ability to deal more rationally with his growing opposition, Washington can help Bolivia’s presidents remain in Bolivia.

[1] Rohter, Larry. “Bolivian Leader’s Ouster Seen as Warning on U.S. Drug Policy.” New York Times, 23 October 2003.

[2] Ledebur, Kathryn. (November 2003) “Special Update on Bolivia: Popular Protest Brings Down Government”. Washington Office on Latin America. http://www.wola.org/publications/ddhr_bolivia_memo_nov2003.pdf

[3] Hall, Kevin G. “Bolivian President Seeks Calm.” The Miami Herald, 2 February 2004, http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/7852943.htm

[4] Antonio Aruquipa, José. “Indigenous parties of Bolivia in crisis.” Latin America Press, 18 July 2003, http://www.lapress.org/article.asp?lanCode=1&artCode=3414

“Elections in Bolivia.” Electionworld.org, 18 October 2003, http://www.electionworld.org/election/bolivia.htm

[5] Electionworld.org

[6] Jeter, Jon. “President’s Ouster Brings Pride to Bolivia’s Indians.” The Washington Post, 21 October 2003.

[7] Jeter.

[8] Arrington, Vanessa. “Plea for patience in Bolivia.” The Chicago Tribune, 21 October 2003. Associated Press.

[9] Arrington.

[10] “El líder campesino Felipe Quispe prevé que ‘en abril va a haber problemas’.” El Mundo, 19 October 2003, EFE, http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2003/10/19/internacional/1066597454.html

[11] Guilera Madariaga, Alexia. “Entrevista a Felipe Quispe.” Agencia Prensa Rural, 22 October 2003. http://www.prensarural.org/bolivia20031022.htm.

[12] El Mundo, 19 October 2003.

[13] Pierri, Raúl. “Bolivia coca growers rise up in protest.” Inter Press Service. 25 January 2002. http://www.agrnews.org/issues/159/worldnews.html

[14] Dangl, Benjamin. “An Interview with Evo Morales: Legalizing the Colonization of the Americas.” Counterpunch, 2 December 2003, http://www.counterpunch.org/dangl12022003.html

[15] Hall, Kevin G.

[16] Guilera Madariaga, Alexia.

[17] Ledebur, Kathryn. “Drug War Monitor: Coca and Conflict in Chapare.” Washington Office on Latin America, July 2002, http://www.wola.org/publications/ddhr_bolivia_brief.pdf

[18] Ledebur, Kathryn. July 2002

[19] Ledebur, Kathryn. July 2002

[20] Feigenblatt, Hazel. “Growers increase their coca acreage.” The Washington Times, 8 December 2003.

[21] Mulligan, Mark. “El Alto ‘time-bomb’ still ticking in Bolivia.” Financial Times, 23 October 2003.

“Free Market Backlash” Newshour with Jim Lehrer Transcript, PBS, 31 December 2003, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/latin_america/july-dec03/bolivia_12-31.html

[22] “Drug Control: Efforts to Develop Alternatives to Cultivating Illicit Crops in Colombia Have Made Little Progress and Face Serioius Obstacles.” U.S. General Accounting Office, February 25, 2002, http://ciponline.org/colombia/d02291.pdf

[23] Ledebur, Kathryn. November 2003.

[24] Ledebur, Kathryn. November 2003.

[25] Hall, Kevin. “Bolivia moving to ease U.S.-aided coca eradication.” The Miami Herald, 19 February 2003, http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/5211030.htm

[26] Novak, Robert. “Bolivia’s drug crisis worsening.” Chicago Sun-Times, January 5, 2004, http://www.suntimes.com/output/novak/cst-edt-novak05.html

[27] Novak.

[28] FY 2005 Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations, U.S. Department of State, 10 February 2004, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/28980.pdf

[29] International Narcotics and Law Enforcement: FY 2004 Budget Justification, U.S. Department of State, June 2003, http://www.state.gov/g/inl/rls/rpt/cbj/fy2004/21881.htm

[30] Ledebur, Kathryn. November 2003

[31] Hall, Kevin. 2 February 2004.

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