THE role of the United States in Bolivia's antidrug effort is at the eye of a storm brewing between President Jaime Paz Zamora's government and the country's 60,000 coca farmers. The disagreement centers on the planned participation of two US-trained Bolivian infantry battalions in the country's war on drugs. In an emergency meeting this week, the main peasant union, CSUTCB, which includes coca farmers, voted for a national road-and-rail blockade on June 17 to protest what they call the ``militarization'' of the drug war.
Their protest is partly directed at the presence of 56 US Army instructors in the country, who are training one of the two battalions on a military base near Santa Cruz in the east. The Bolivian Army is expected to start antidrug operations in July.
But a deeper concern is over the government's willingness to involve the the military in the drug war. Many critics say this increases the prospects for violence - against peasants who grow coca as well as between the Army and national police forces, who have an historic rivalry.
This concern apparently prompted union members on Wednesday to reject an earlier deal, in which the government said the Army would move only against cocaine traffickers and not against farmers who produce coca, the plant that provides the raw material for cocaine. Peasants want guarantees that the Army will not enter zones where coca is grown.
The government argues that much of the 100,000 tons of coca that are grown annually is processed into paste (the first stage in cocaine production) in or near the coca-producing areas.
Both sides say they want to avoid the drug-related violence that has become common in neighboring Peru and Colombia.
``Violence [in Bolivia] is seen as stemming from suppression, the state, and the US, not from local traffickers, and still less the growers, whose principal means of resistance are passive,'' says Prof. James Dunkerley, a British specialist on Bolivia.
The US has conditioned $14 million of aid to the Army this year on its part in the drug war. And some unions have condemned a visit by Bob Martinez, the US's chief antidrug coordinator, who arrived Wednesday. Mr. Martinez, who is visiting five nations, will meet with coca growers.
US officials in La Paz say they offered the money because they could not expand the fire power of UMOPAR, the 1,000-strong antidrug police, without provoking Army jealousy. Disdain between the two security forces is rooted in Bolivia's 1952 revolution, when the police sided with left-wing rebels and the Army opted for the status quo.
``We are worried about inter-agency rivalry,'' admits a US Embassy official, ``and the problems of a joint command structure.''
To try to tempt the coca growers into accepting Army participation, the government has also promised a major new impetus to finding alternative crops to coca.
``The peasants know that alternative development is a trick,'' claims Evo Morales, executive secretary of a radical union. ``Those who have substituted [other crops for] their coca soon realize there are no alternative markets.''
Obstacles to weaning peasants off coca include poor marketing infrastructure for alternative crops, slow payments to peasants making the shift, and long delays before the crops yield a profit.
``Alternative development is a long process, needing at least 10 years,'' says Giovanni Qualgia, head of the UN Drug Control Program here. But he claims there has been a ``revolution'' in the last two years in peasants' willingness to diversify from coca, helped by recent low coca prices.
Last year a 100-lb. bag of coca brought between $5 and $50 (a farmer needs $30 to break even). The slump led to more than 6,000 farmers eradicating 19,270 acres of coca. US officials say 1990 was the first time since 1985 that there was a net reduction in hectares planted with coca.
Prices have picked up this year and eradication has slowed. Officials say it will be difficult to meet the 1991 target of 7,000 hectares (17,290 acres). This year the US has linked $65 million of ``economic support funds'' to Bolivia to its achieiving several targets, including eradication figures.