Juan Karita/AP
Women coca growers hold coca leaves during the so-called 'National day of coca leaf-chewing' in La Paz, Bolivia, last week.

Bolivia says no to cocaine, but yes to coca

As Latin America debates decriminalizing drugs, nowhere is the coca-cocaine tension more prevalent than in Bolivia, writes guest blogger Jackie Briski.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, jbriski.wordpress.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

In many parts of the Andes, tourists can purchase t-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs, and all manner of other merchandise with the proud slogan “la hoja de coca no es droga,” a simple yet profound statement that means “the coca leaf is not a drug.”

The slogan itself is an indication of a deep tension between those who would use coca leaves for traditional religious and medicinal purposes, and those who would use coca to profit from its narcotic derivative, cocaine.

Nowhere is this coca-cocaine tension more prevalent than in Bolivia. For many Bolivians, it’s a matter of national identity.

Richard Craig provided some background on this in “Illicit Drug Traffic: Implications for South American Source Countries,” published in Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 29, No. 2 back in 1987:

In one way or another most Bolivians are involved in a cocacultura. They grow the leaf, ceremonialize it, chew it, drink it, cook it, stomp it, refine it, smoke it, sell it, and seek to eradicate it. Predating the Inca period, coca’s impact on Bolivian culture is such as to render it a virtual national resource.

Domestic policy under President Evo Morales – the Coca Sí, Cocaína No program – is an attempt at striking a balance between supporting traditional uses of coca leaves while cracking down on illicit production and trafficking of cocaine.

In addition to this domestic policy, some refer to the foreign policy strategy of the Morales Administration as “coca diplomacy.”

Since his election in 2006, Morales has advocated global decriminalization of traditional uses for the coca leaf – but not decriminalization of cocaine – through amending the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 to remove all references to the coca leaf.

He raised some eyebrows at his first UN General Assembly in September 2006 by holding up a coca leaf as he made the following remarks:

I should like to take this opportunity to speak of another historical injustice: the criminalization of the coca leaf. This coca leaf is green, not white, like cocaine. … Conditionality-based policies implemented in the past focused on zero coca-leaf production. But zero coca-leaf production is equivalent to zero Quechuas, zero Aymarás, zero Mojeños, zero Chiquitanos. All of that ended with another Government. We are an underdeveloped country with economic problems resulting from the pillage of our natural resources. We are here today to begin to regain our dignity and the dignity of our country.

It turned out that the new head of state had technically smuggled the coca leaves past US Customs officials by hiding them in the book he carried with him onto the plane in order to bring them to UN Headquarters in New York.

In 2008, Morales took a stronger stand for the national dignity of the Bolivian people by expelling US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials. After suspending DEA operations indefinitely in Bolivia, Morales explained that ”We have the obligation to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the Bolivian people.”

Coca in the Constitution

The Bolivian Constitution was amended in several ways in 2009. Among other things, Bolivia is now officially defined as a  unitary plurinational state, or a country comprised of many different people groups, but with one sovereign central government.

But the Constitution also provides the following provision on coca in Part Four, Title II, Chapter Seven, Section II, Article 384 (in Spanish):

The State shall protect native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion; in its natural state it is not a narcotic. Its revaluing, production, commercialization, and industrialization shall be regulated by law.

This particular amendment has served to formalize the tension between international convention and constitutional law in Bolivia.

More recently, Morales made a strong statement by formally withdrawing Bolivia from the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in June 2011, effective Jan. 1, 2012, since diplomatic efforts had failed to lead to the Convention’s amendment.

The Morales Administration was careful to specify that the objection was only with the classification of the coca leaf, and that the Bolivian government would ensure continued compliance with the rest of the terms of the 1961 Single Convention and the Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1972.

Comparative Advantage

The coca-cocaine tension is further complicated by an economic theory known as comparative advantage.

This principle states that when it comes to trade relations, states should specialize in trading the goods that they can produce with the greatest relative efficiency at the lowest relative cost when compared to other states–giving them a comparative advantage in that particular good.

In other words, it’s more cost effective for everyone to export what they can produce more efficiently than anyone else while importing what they can’t.

Unfortunately for the Bolivian-law-abiding coca growers, the Andean Region has a clear comparative advantage in coca production. A recent report on cocaine in Stratfor’s Criminal Commodities Series explains it this way:

Coca can be grown in a number of geographic locales, including Mexico, but only the South American geography is ideally suited to naturally cultivate the plant in large enough quantities for mass production.... According to the 2011 UN World Drug Report, three countries – Colombia, Peru and Bolivia – harvested all known coca in the world.

Under previous presidential administrations, the official policy was to promote alternative development. While this is still part of the Coca Sí, Cocaína No program, alternative development is more voluntary now.

It’s a great idea to train and equip farmers to grow coffee and chocolate instead of coca – an initiative that has found great success in some regions – but coca is still easier to cultivate than chocolate and less fickle than coffee.

The Legalization Debate

Given the historical context, it comes as little surprise that the Morales Administration was quick to clarify a statement by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Following the recent bilateral meetings between the two presidents, El País reported (in Spanish) that Santos explained a plan for a Colombian-Bolivian tag team during the upcoming Summit on the Americas:

Bolivia – with its knowledge and experience in the traditional use of the coca leaf and the processes of alternative development – and Colombia – with our experience in combating drug cartels – have a lot to contribute to this discussion, which should be open and without prejudice.

He went on to use the phrase “we” several times as he explained plans to propose a “comprehensive and wide” discussion about the results of “the so-called ‘War on Drugs’” and the “diverse strategies that we can take on together to end this scourge.”

According to the El País article, Morales was standing next to Santos when he made these remarks.

However, the next day, Los Tiempos reported (in Spanish) that the Bolivian government rejects the debate on regional drug legalization.

Bolivian Government Minister Carlos Romero, who accompanied Morales on the trip to Colombia, explained that they had discussed many topics, one of which had been the fight against narcotrafficking. However, drug legalization “is not the appropriate way.” The Minister went on to say:

We have said many times that if there is no joint work between all of the countries we cannot face up to this scourge, so our proposal is to work together. Migration control, databases, international police operatives, in technology.

Several countries in Latin America came under sharp criticism from the UN in 2010 for the trend of decriminalization that swept through some countries in 2009. The report stated that Latin America was undermining the war on drugs.

This was before Santos began the process of decriminalizing personal drug possession in Colombia (a 180° turn from the policy views of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe) and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina – whose presidential campaign was based on the promise of crushing crime “with an iron fist” – initiated the drug legalization discussion at the regional level. .

President Morales is in a tight spot, facing pressure at home and abroad. As former head of the Bolivian national coca growers union, he has to show his electoral base that he will uphold the 2009 Constitution.

At the same time, he has to prove to the international community – especially the international drug control system – that he’s serious about upholding the rest of the Single Convention, even though Bolivia has officially withdrawn from it.

– Jackie Briski is a Latin Americanist and author of the blog cuando asi no sea.

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