Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ian MacIsaac: Bolivia mounts a new campaign to legitimize coca amid wave of anti-U.S. sentiment in South America

Article 384 of the Constitution of Bolivia:

  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.

NOTE: Bear with me here; I’m a history major. A subject as both literally and intellectually foreign as Bolivia (at least for us stuck here under the Great American Information Bubble) needs some context. Let’s go back a few thousand years for just one minute.

  The Andean people of South America have been chewing the coca leaf for as far back as history can record. A mild stimulant similar in its effects to coffee, coca has over thousands of years grown to occupy a central role in the culture of the Andes Mountains region, as well as a substantial place in traditional medicine of the region;  to this day it remains a catch-all cure for such maladies as altitude sickness, fatigue, hunger, rheumatism, and headaches. One would have to imagine a merger of alcohol and aspirin, perhaps, to imagine the relative importance coca holds in the culture of a people who have, historically, had access to neither of those mainstays of North American culture.

  Despite coca’s importance, it has been the target of perhaps the second most undeserved and ridiculous smear campaign of the so-called “War on Drugs” (read: War on Certain Drugs). The chance discovery in the late 19th century of a coca alkaloid that came to be known as cocaine has negated the benefits of the source in the eyes of the western world, and indeed caused the itself quite innocuous plant no end of unnecessary vilification. Led by the United States, the world has largely turned against coca, equating it with so-called “hard drugs” and seeking to remove it both socially and geographically. Cocaine rarely makes up more than 1 percent of the coca leaf by weight, and it is not at all certain that cocaine is at all a part of coca’s appeal to indigenous users of the natural leaf. Says Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., “Coca and cocaine are worlds apart. It’s like trying to compare coffee to methamphetamine.” Nevertheless, that false equivalence has largely dominated the international relations between the U.S. and Andean countries since the beginning of the Drug War under President Nixon, feeding the pockets of the massive anti-drug lobby in Washington.

  Today, Bolivia enjoys some of the first prosperity and democratic rule in its history under the apparently venerable leadership of Evo Morales, the country’s first president of indigenous Andean ancestry. He is relatively young, and still the technical leader of the coca union he headed before becoming president. The UN has deemed coca as internationally illicit as cocaine, and Bolivia is one of the few countries in which the coca plant—known as Erythroxylon coca botanically—can be legally cultivated. Bolivia tried to comply with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) goal of eradicating coca worldwide before President Morales took power in January 2006. Running on a slogan of “coca no es cocaina”—“coca is not cocaine”—while preaching a zero-tolerance policy for cocaine use, Morales turned his back on the United States’s anti-coca effort in his country. He expelled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Central Intelligence Agency agents in the country as spies. He destroyed US-manufactured chemicals sent to Bolivia for coca eradication, and encouraged domestic companies to begin using the plant in a plethora of useful ways: for teas, medicinal and gustatory syrups, liqueurs (coca is known for going well in red wine), and even toothpaste.

  He took this campaign to international politics as well. He once very publicly presented the U.S. Secretary of State, on a diplomatic mission to his country, with an ornamental guitar decorated with coca leaves and made partially from coca-based materials. Secretary Rice managed only a placid smile at the sight of the instrument the hegemonic government she represented saw as a narcotics crime. Although the diplomatic exchange got almost nonexistent coverage in the U.S., the clip of Morales and Rice received repeated and sustained TV coverage across South America. For once, it seemed, the oppressed were standing up to their oppressor, standing up to the country (empire?) that Latin Americans have called, for two hundred years, the “Colossus to the North”—and the people of the Andes cheered. A bad day to be an American, perhaps, but a good day to love liberty.

  Morales’s movement for coca has begun to spread in South America. The continent’s new wave of leaders—led by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and including the presidents of Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina, and Peru, plus Bolivia—have begun to unite in their opposition to American control of their domestic policies; only Colombia has continued to openly support U.S. interests within their borders. Apart from simply increasing the amount of money to be thrown in this bottomless pit of tax dollars, American policy south of the border has not changed substantially in reaction to the changing situation in the region, apart from intensifying, or where we had to do something—such as when the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, demanded that U.S. troops immediately leave their bases in his country unless his military could have a base in the Miami area. (The United States declines and the country no longer sustains a military presence in Ecuador.) And, really, what else but such pathetic clinging-to could we expect, really, from a federal government that repeatedly refers to democratically-elected leaders in South America such as Hugo Chavez as “dictators” simply for being at odds politically with the interests of the U.S.?

  It would be illogical and historically ignorant of us to suppose that Washington might change face on a subject with as much special interest money involved as the Drug War. Although President Obama’s justice department, headed by Eric Holder, has declared that the nomenclature of the “War on Drugs,” including that phrase itself, will not be part of the Obama administration’s lexicon, the federal government’s policies regarding coca and cocaine have changed little from the George W. Bush administration before them. His policies were not much different from Bill Clinton’s before him, or George H. W. Bush’s before him. Liberals and conservatives come and go, but it seems that drug policy—at least as it comes to countries we feel we can easily manipulate—is stuck in a vacuum.

  The world, however, is changing around the new Roman Empire we gringos call our home. Not long before his second election, Evo Morales took his coca campaign to UN headquarters in New York City. In front of the General Assembly, the president produced a packet of coca leaves from inside his jacket and began consuming the classified narcotic in front of numerous world leaders.

  “The coca leaf should no longer be vilified and criminalized,” said the president. To ban coca, he warned, “amounts to a ban on our culture,” and a “major historical mistake.

  “Coca leaf consumption goes back to the year 3000 B.C.,” the president emotionally declared to the world’s most powerful international political body, a small lump of coca visible at the bottom of his cheek. “How are you going to end its consumption, knowing that it harms no one?”

  About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama, where he edits the opinion section of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus, and serves as a Senator-at-Large within the Student Government Association. 

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