Autor: Przemysław Kurlandt
As one could expect, it was not the only situation when the first indigenous president of Bolivia spoke negatively about Uncle Sam’s actions in the international arena. In fact, Morales has always been an outspoken anti-imperialist and a strong opponent of US interventionism. Throughout his presidency, and even after it ended, he would oftentimes portray the US as an evil cradle of capitalism and an enemy of humanity. Decision taken by Morales in relation to reorientation of the country’s coca policy well illustrate his stance towards the superpower.
The increasingly autonomous administration of Bolivia in the sphere of drugs led to significant deterioration of bilateral relations with Washington, which had a completely distinct vision of how coca should be dealt with. Acting independently meant losing his country’s right to external financial aid. Nonetheless, Morales has not backed down and, in spite of strong international criticism, he managed to introduce a new approach to coca in Bolivia. This paper will attempt to answer why Bolivia took steps contradictory to the interests of a much more powerful state by examining how personal background of Morales has shaped his worldview and thus influenced his foreign policy.
The start of the 21st century in Latin America saw an emergence of a regional turn towards left-leaning governments known as the pink tide. Following the electoral victory of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in 1998, more leftist candidates gained considerable popularity among voters and won presidential offices. Evo Morales, who had governed Bolivia from 2006 to 2019, was one of the prominent pink tide leaders. During 14 years in office, Morales was engaged in recognition of indigenous rights, nationalisation of gas and oil sectors, and implementation of various social programs (Pellegrini and Arismendi, 2012).
His objective was to bring opportunities and development to previously marginalised places. Nonetheless, with regulated legalisation of coca as one of his top priorities, he also played a highly active role in the international arena. Morales, who used to be a coca farmer and activist, adopted a policy known as "Coca Yes, Cocaine No" and lobbied for international acceptance of coca leaf. One of the most emblematic moments of Morales’ campaign was the speech delivered at the 55th session of the United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. Holding up a coca leaf, he defended Bolivia’s tradition of chewing coca and urged the institution to reconsider its illegality (Brocchetto, 2012). In fact, he achieved his goal since Bolivia was eventually granted a special dispensation recognising the traditional practice as lawful.
Coca policy implemented under Morales.
Once in power, Morales broke off with traditional approach of Bolivia to coca and redirected the state’s external behaviour. Instead of starting his international tour with a visit to the US, as previous Bolivian president-elects did, Morales’ first destinations were Havana and Caracas, which demonstrated his anti-imperial attitude (Reisinger, 2009). Moreover, in the years following his first election, Morales took serious steps to decriminalise coca leaf which brought about a radical shift in the coca policy landscape.
In contrast to the previous US-led strategy based on forcible elimination of coca crops, the new policy “Coca Yes, Cocaine No” allowed farmers to grow a limited plot of coca while encouraging self-policing (Grisaffi, 2019). Simultaneously, Morales’ administration concentrated on assisting the development of coca-growing zones through investments in infrastructure, heath and education (Grisaffi, 2019).
Furthermore, claiming that the US strategy did not provide the solution to preventing drug trafficking, he decided to expel the US ambassador Philip Goldberg in 2008 and ordered the US anti-drug agency DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) out of Bolivia after its 35-year activity there (Garcia, 2008). Consequently, this led to a holdup of commercial benefits from ATPDEA (Andean Trade Protection and Drug Eradication) (Souza, Filho and Santos, 2020). Nonetheless, despite strong criticism from the US, the Latin American state continued with a program of regulated legalisation of coca.
In order to identify in what ways Morales’ views influenced his decisions in relation to coca, it seems vital to analyse the leader’s personal background and its context. To start with, Morales was born in 1959 to a family of farmers and spent his childhood in the rural village of Isallawi. After serving his military service, he returned to his family who were forced to migrate to the Chapare province due to devastation caused by El Niño storm cycle (Reisinger, 2009). Like other Bolivians there, Morales earned a living growing crops including coca.
For indigenous community in which he grew up, coca is a ritual and medicinal substance of their culture that has been cultivated in the region for thousands of years (Tonye, 1999; Grisaffi, 2010). Nonetheless, as part of War on Drugs, the US government began to pressure Bolivia to eradicate coca crops by burning fields down. This was met with broad dissatisfaction among indigenous population and led to emergence of a social movement of coca growers in the 1980s (Reisinger, 2009).
The protesters opposed the criminalisation of coca leaf and US attempts to eliminate coca fields (Harten, 2011). In fact, it was in that period when Morales’ views of coca policies financed by the US was fundamentally affected. According to Sivak (2010, p.40) one of the most influential experiences was an event during which a coca farmer suspected of being a narco trafficker was beaten up, sprayed with gasoline and burned alive by soldiers while others watched.
Morales’ resistance to policies implemented in that period can be exemplified by his rejection of the compensation of 2,500 USD for each acre of cleared out coca field proposed by the government and funded wth the U.S. aid (Sivak, 2010). Thereafter, he continued to fight for the movement’s cause while climbing the ladder of coca growers’ union, and eventually became one of its man figures.
Throughout his activist career, Morales engaged in organisation of various protests and gave numerous speeches where he depicted the US as an oppressive power, argued that coca legalisation is an issue of national sovereignty, and highlighted the victimhood of coca growers (Harten, 2011). The turning point for Bolivian coca growers was, in fact, Morales’ presidential victory in 2006 which was achieved with the support of the MAS (Movement for Socialism), a political party that emerged from coca growers’ movement unionised with indigenous organizations (Sivak, 2010).
Explanation of foreign policy reorientation.
In order to answer why Bolivia took steps contradictory to the interests of a much more powerful state, it is vital to identify the relationship between the leader’s past and policies implemented once in power. First of all, it has to be highlighted that Morales comes from a community where coca leaf is a sacred plant deeply rooted in the local cultural identity. Because of his origins, Morales gained a profound respect for coca at an early stage of life, which could only strengthen as he tirelessly fought for its decriminalisation (Harten, 2011).
Although in many parts of the globe coca was seen as a main ingredient of addictive cocaine, for Morales and other economic refugees that settled in the Chapare region, it was one of crops they farmed from way back and on which their livelihood depended. The following statement highlights the value attached by Morales to coca leaf: ”The eradication of the coca leaf would be, for our Andean people, death. Because for us coca is everything: Our material survival, our myths, our cosmic vision of the world, the happiness to live, the word of our ancestors, the constant dialog with the Pachamama, our reason to be in this world” (CAPC, 1993).
Thus, it can be noted that Morales viewed coca as something of immense value and entirely different from cocaine, hence, a clear distinction in the name of employed policy. He did not seem to presume that coca leafs ought to be eradicated only because they are an ingredient of an illicit drug. Morales openly refused to put the blame for drug trafficking of an abusive drug on coca and argued that the US approach to combating drugs trafficking for years failed to solve its real underlying problems of drug production and consumption (El Transnational Institute, 1998).
Being an eyewitness to violent confrontations stemming from US led anti-coca policies in the past, Morales was not only able to observe their efficiency (or lack of it), but also their brutality, inequality and consequences they had for his fellow unionists and coca growers. In fact, he experienced the oppressiveness directly as he was beaten up and arrested by US-trained anti-drug agents in 1994 (Schipani, 2019). He was, therefore, in the best position to realize what the social cost of the conflict between coca growers and law enforcement agencies was.
Morales also viewed the anti-coca strategy through its imperial characteristics that undermined the dignity of Bolivians, who were jailed or killed for growing crops that have been farmed in the region for millennia. It seems that for Morales the targeting of coca was not merely a foreign intervention, but rather an attempt to oppress Bolivia, thus, an issue of national sovereignty: "the fight against drug trafficking is a pretext for the United States to dominate Latin America (…) to dominate our people, to violate our sovereignty" (Reynolds, 2000).
Therefore, when he finally gained an opportunity to change the course of events, he refused to fall in line with US agenda and transformed the coca policy landscape. His utmost respect for coca leaf and experiences gained throughout his pro-coca activist career combined with animosity towards violent means, led him to remove the prohibition of coca production at all costs, even if preserving political autonomy meant heightening tensions with the US and other states.
Morales’ experiences as an indigenous man, coca grower, and coca union leader are essential in understanding his worldview in relation to coca production and his attitude towards interventionism. Having lived through times of violent anti-coca policy, Morales replaced the forced eradication strategy with the programme of regulated legalisation of coca as soon as he had a chance.
Enabling Bolivians to continue growing the sacred plant was evidently more significant for Morales than obtaining external financial aid and maintaining friendly relations with Washington. Apart from illustrating that leaders sometimes matter a great deal in terms of changes in state behaviour, the case of Bolivian president Evo Morales demonstrates that background and past experiences play an important role in shaping leader’s worldview and thus influence foreign policy decisions once in power.
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