Dancing With the Devil: Drug War Politics in Bolivia

Bolivian President Evo Morales has argued that the United States uses the drug war to advance its own political interests and discredit political opponents. But does the Bolivian Government do the same?
suzanna.reiss 10/6/2011

In September, the U.S. government once again singled out Venezuela, Bolivia, (and Burma) for having "failed demonstrably" in their drug control efforts. This U.S. "presidential determination" has become an annual ritual of castigating governments in political conflict with the United States.

In response, Bolivian President Evo Morales argued that the United States uses the drug war to advance its own political interests and discredit political opponents. “The drug trafficking (issue), just like terrorism, is fundamentally political. Before, they accused leaders of being communists to persecute them, now its ‘drug trafficker’ or ‘terrorist.’ ’’ Embracing the logic of drug control and throwing it back at the United States, Morales has called upon South American nations to unite and "decertify" the U.S. in its drug control efforts, given its primary role in the trade as the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs. 436 (Print sold on a t-shirt by anti-Chávez interamericansecuritywatch.com)This would be largely a symbolic gesture, but symbolism is what the war on drugs is often about.

Morales clearly recognizes that being tagged with the “narco” label is fundamentally driven by political considerations. This sensitivity is well placed since he has frequently been accused of fuelling drug trafficking through his defense of peoples’ legitimate cultivation of coca for uses other than the production of cocaine. In fact, such accusations and rhetoric seem to be particularly in vogue if a recent article in Foreign Policy is any measure. “The Return of South America’s Narco-Generals” accuses Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez of criminal complicity with the drug trade.

Yet, the Bolivian Government itself has staged anti-drug campaigns for decidedly political reasons. At times this has been to stave off U.S. skepticism over the country’s drug control commitment by publicizing raids and eradication efforts. Anti-drug crusades also afford opportunities to cultivate and present a public face emphasizing good relations with other countries. Earlier this year England and Bolivia signed a memo of understanding outlining collaborations against trafficking, and more recently the European Union publicly increased its financial support for Bolivia’s anti-drug efforts. Perhaps this is an inevitable aspect of international diplomacy in the twenty-first century.

Participation in the drug war seems to also have had elements of calculated political expedience for Morales domestically. In her reporting on the ongoing protests in Bolivia, my fellow blogger Emily Achtenberg at Rebel Currents describes a recent drug enforcement raid in the Indigenous Territory, commonly referred to by its acronym TIPNIS, where government special forces destroyed family homes, coca crops, and forcibly evicted 30 colonist settlers. It has been suggested that Morales’ support for the highway that would bisect TIPNIS lands (the immediate origin of the current protests) is partially tied to his identification with coca farmers whom indigenous residents depict as eager to colonize more land and establish an environmentally destructive presence. By going after some of these settlers and their coca plant crops in such a dramatic fashion, the Bolivian government seems to be offering up a politically inspired symbolic gesture at a moment when popular mobilizations have placed his grand visions for economic development on hold.

437 (Eradication forces destroying coca plants in TIPNIS, la-razon.com)I do not believe that the Bolivian Government is as committed to drug war spectacles on anything like the scale or consistency of the United States. But I do think it is worth considering the selective and politically convenient uses of anti-drug actions and rhetoric. Once you jump into the game, it can cut both ways. One indigenous leader who feels betrayed by the Morales Government’s response to the TIPNIS protests characterized the President’s motivations: “He backs the cocaine sector. He has no respect for indigenous territories, for Mother Nature.”

These words clearly tap into the discrediting power of drug war rhetoric by implying Morales has links to illicit cocaine.  But they also hint at what is at the heart of the matter: who gets to set the terms and legitimately participate in the cultivation, trade and consumption of the world’s natural resources, including plants with psychoactive properties. Who is able to survive off the fruits of Mother Nature? One expelled colonist explained to a reporter from La Razón that he depended on money from coca to care for his children. To raise this point is not to dismiss the fact that many indigenous people condemn the impact of coca growing in TIPNIS. Nevertheless, the colonists whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in this latest drug eradication campaign might well echo complaints Morales has leveled at the United States. The spectacles of the drug war are always disturbing. A militarized assault on people and plants is never good for collective well-being but, as a “drug eradication” effort, it can make for effective politics.



Read more of Suzanna Reiss' blog, Traffick Jam, or see also her articles, "Challenging prohibition & Pharmaceutical Power: From Coca to Marijuana," July 17, 2011; and "A Crime or a Cure?," June 2, 2011.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.