The U.S./Bolivia Drug Show
The hills of Cochabamba have turned a lush green from the late summer rains. I can walk safely down the street again without fear of the water balloons of Carnival coming down upon my targeted gringo head. And the governments of Bolivia and the U.S. are launching broadsides against one another over the coca leaf. Predictability in all its various forms.
For years here, when the nation was governed by men the U.S. government liked, March 1st was known as "certification day." This is the date when, each year, the U.S. State Department releases its annual report card on the drug-fighting efforts of the rest of the world, the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report to the Congress (INCSR).
The report comes in at a hefty 900 pages and runs through the U.S. version of how 139 different nations are or are not battling substances ranging from marijuana to the poppy flower.
Norwegians readers will be relieved to learn that illicit drug production in that country "remained insignificant in 2009." But Canadians may be dismayed to learn that their country, "remains a significant source" for marijuana entering the U.S. market. Or perhaps they will be unmoved. Who truly understands the Canadian soul?
Nevertheless, the State Department's report card on Bolivia goes well beyond whatever warnings it has to offer about Sweden, Latvia, and the Maldives. For the second year in a row, the U.S. has made a formal finding that its distant neighbor to the south has “failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics conventions." Now in Bolivia March 1st into "de-certification day."
Punch and Counter Punch
Here, in a nutshell, is what the U.S. has to say about Bolivia and the war on drugs (page 149):
Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of cocaine. In 2009, although the government met its minimum bilateral requirement to eradicate 5,000 hectares of coca, these efforts have not kept pace with rising coca cultivation and cocaine production. In other words, in the U.S. view Bolivia's anti-coca efforts are the equivalent of tossing out five bags of trash while filling up seven more. Or as the assistant secretary of state put it in Washington on Monday, "Bolivia has a continuing trend of a step up per year in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 percent that’s taken place over the course of the last several years."
Now to be sure, the government of Bolivia has a different view of events, which basically comes to this:
The government of Bolivia has a clear declared policy of " coca yes, cocaine zero." Despite the fact that Bolivia lacks a whole host of resources important to fighting the illegal drug trade – including soldiers, vehicles, and planes with radar – the country has still made substantial progress. In the past four years during the Morales presidency it has seized more than 91 tons of illegal drugs, up from 49 tons seized in the four years just prior to Morales becoming President. A Bolivian government spokesman branded the U.S. report, "a lie" and declared that its neighbor to the distant north has no right to "certify or decertify" any other country's anti-drug efforts.
So goes the annual U.S. vs. Bolivia coca debate. And I am willing to bet you two unhindered water balloon shots at my gringo head during next year's carnival that a few days afterwards that debate will remain exactly the same, and the year after that, and the year after that. Both sides have their view and both sides have numbers and statistics they can call up to support that view.
Some Simple Facts
Over the course of living here for a dozen years I have had a chance to talk to a lot of smart people sitting on all sides of the coca issue – Bolivian officials, U.S. officials, women in jail on drug charges, scientific experts, researchers, lawyers, judges, and reporters, among others. Here are a few things that everyone who really knows this issue knows and is wiling to say in private:
1. The coca leaf is not cocaine. It becomes cocaine only after an elaborate chemical process that leeches out the cocaine alkaloid that was also once the secret additive to Coca Cola, in addition to being the essential ingredient for the popular white powder that shares its name.
2. Not all coca grown in Bolivia is destined to be chewed, made into tea, or used for some other traditional purpose. Some of it, a lot of it, is aimed at the cocaine market, especially the coca grown in the Chapare. And here in Cochabamba on the outskirts of the city the green hillsides are becoming increasingly populated with new-tech processing labs to start the chemical metamorphosis involved.
3. The reason that the U.S. "War on Drugs" here is so suspected and loathed is because for decades it was not really a war on drugs but an all-out assault on human rights. Set aside the issue of eradication and its impact on coca farmers (many of them, thought not all, living in extreme poverty). Let's talk about the fact that Bolivian prosecutors on the U.S. payroll put thousands of innocent people in jail each year just to keep the U.S. Embassy and State Department stocked with happy arrest stats to show off to their superiors in Washington and help them build careers.
4. It is silly and ridiculous to maintain the current UN (and U.S. backed) prohibition against the exportation of non-narcotic products such as coca tea. You have to be quite the fool to believe that someone is going to start tearing apart those little paper tea bags to convert the miniscule amounts of coca leaf crumbs inside into cocaine powder. But it is equally silly to believe that the export of products like coca tea is going to suck up all the coca headed for the drug market. It won't.
5. Bolivian coca is not a U.S. problem. Cocaine that comes from Bolivian coca is not primarily headed for the U.S. (it can thank Colombia, a country that the U.S. does certify, for serving the U.S. market). Cocaine with Bolivian roots is headed for Brazil, Argentina and Europe. If there are countries beyond Bolivia's borders that have an interest in what happens here and ought to be working with the Bolivian government on the problem, it is those governments not the U.S., and each is in a far better political position to actually do so.
6. If the U.S. is genuinely serious about its drug problem then it should stop a decades-old show called the War on Drugs, and adopt a series of public policies that nearly every serious analyst knows is the most effective course, including: free drug treatment for those addicted the moment they ask for it (because that's when it has a shot at working); treating addiction as a disease instead of a criminal offense; and sucking billions of dollars out of the hands of criminal syndicates and into the coffers of public treasuries by legalizing marijuana, regulating it, and taxing it.
These are the facts that stand waiting behind the curtain while the U.S. vs. Bolivia show keeps rolling out in endless reruns on stage. It's run from here looks long, I am sad to say. The facts above will continue to remain out of the bilateral discourse and out of the policy equation.
And a year from now I will once again breath a sigh of relief as February leaves us and March begins. The hills will once more be green and the water balloons, like the truth about the War on Drugs, will have been laid to rest for another year.