Wall St. Journal editorial: US drug policy to blame for Bolivian uprising
Congress did not repeal the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1933 because it had decided alcohol abuse was passe. It did so because it judged that the costs of Prohibition were higher than the benefits and that a regulated market would be a better way to manage a popular but sometimes harmful depressant drug.
The unintended consequence of Prohibition was the rise of violent organized crime and the spike in official corruption that accompanied it. After 13 years of Prohibition, most Americans didn't like what Al Capone et al were doing in the streets and to the country's legal institutions.
That's something to think about in light of the death spiral of democracy in Latin America's Andean region, the center of gravity for coca growing and processing and the bull's eye of the U.S. war on drugs.
The poor Andean region, with its young and fragile democracies, is where a lot of "illegal substances," as currently defined, originate. Criminal networks trading in drugs burrow into the institutional pillars of these states and hollow them out. They also exploit down-and-out locals in dire need of an income by enlisting them to meet the demand for outlawed substances.
The drug lords are becoming ever more sophisticated in fighting their side of the "war." As they grow frighteningly more powerful in politics, they threaten to destroy freely elected governments.
Bolivia is the latest victim of this economic reality. In the past two years, two Bolivian presidents have been forced from office by a violent minority. Its leader is Evo Morales, who has organized the peasants that grow a form of coca specifically bred for making cocaine. Elected President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (widely known affectionately as "Goni") fled the country in October 2003 amid militant violence led by Mr. Morales. Earlier this month, the vice president who succeeded him also stepped down, again as a way to appease Mr. Morales and his extremist followers who had paralyzed the country.
The ostensible purpose of the "Indian" roadblocks, the dynamite and the marches is to protest private exploration, extraction and distribution of the country's huge natural gas reserves. The protestors say they want the gas to be nationalized as the mines were in 1952. But scratch the surface and one finds that the question of the natural gas reserves merely sparked the blaze. The tinder box of organized anger already existed, built of long-simmering resentment against the government's aggressive eradication of coca crops. It didn't take much imagination for Mr. Morales to blame the U.S. war on drugs, American "imperialism" and capitalism in general for the lack of peasant progress. His counter-attack has become a serious threat to Bolivian democracy.
Political militancy among the coca growers can be traced to the government of Hugo Banzer. The late President Banzer came to power in 1997 through an alliance with the left-wing MIR party, whose leadership had been implicated in the drug trade. To diminish U.S. concerns about that alliance, Banzer pledged to vigorously prosecute the war on drugs.
Economic need and U.S. demand for cocaine had sent thousands of unemployed Bolivian miners to the Chapare region years earlier to grow coca for export to Colombia where it could be processed. Mr. Morales comes from a family that reportedly did just that.
In 1999, hoping to prove his anti-drug bona fides to the U.S., Banzer launched an aggressive attack on the Chapare that sent cocaleros scurrying. Conservative estimates are that some 50,000 Bolivian families were farming coca in the Chapare at that time. Many ended up in the slums of Cochabamba.
The Bolivian economy was growing at a reasonable 4% to 5% a year at that time, thanks to market-driven reforms under Goni's first term (1993-1997) which had brought new investment to the country. But after the anti-cocalero campaign "you could feel that there was less money, less economic activity at the grass-roots," a former Bolivian official close to the situation told me. The reason, he says, was that the eradication had taken an economic toll. Some 5% to 8% of gross domestic product had been lost, and not evenly. It had hit the farmers and had had a multiplier effect on the rest of the lower-income tier of the economy.
In April 2000, the brewing hostility over the economic hardship found an outlet. Plans to award a water contract in Cochabamba to the U.S. Bechtel construction firm produced a surprising rebellion in the city, Bolivia's third largest. Traditional tranquility was disturbed by road and bridge blockades and other forms of protest.
It is true that the Bechtel project, while offering greater convenience and sanitation, threatened the livelihood of small water carriers. But the resistance went way beyond what the "aguateros" or even wealthy special interests, on their own, could have produced. The real force behind the rebellion was an uprising of the displaced cocaleros against the legitimate government. The government backed off the water project and a lesson was taught. The "War of Water," as it became known, signaled that street violence could get results.
Mr. Morales's genius has been to forge the coca growers into a broader political movement. His backers are a worrisome lot. Judging from his many photo ops with Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Mr. Morales now has friends who can supply tips on revolutionary politics and material aid as well. Colombia's FARC guerrillas, who profit from their own cocaine businesses, are rumored to also be interested in Bolivia.
Protesting peasants and paramilitary roadblocks require transportation, food and logistics. Someone is funding the effort. That could be hostile tyrants in the region but it could also be the cocaine industry in Bolivia. On Tuesday the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported that while coca cultivation in Colombia dropped 7% in the last year, it rose in Peru and Bolivia 14% and 17% respectively and was up 3% in the region overall. There is new money from the business because Bolivians are now involved not only in growing but in the more lucrative aspects of processing for export.
The destabilizing effects on the region's political system are at a level that Americans would not tolerate at home, as they demonstrated when they voted down Prohibition. It is reasonable to ask whether it is morally defensible or wise or even pragmatic to expect Latins to carry a similar burden when there are so many better ways to fight drug use on U.S. soil.