Following a landslide victory at the polls, Evo Morales became president of Bolivia in January 2006.[i] Head of the coca-growers’ federation, Morales was a long-standing foe of U.S. drug policy, and many observers anticipated a complete break in U.S.-Bolivian relations and hence an end to drug policy cooperation. Instead, both Morales and the George W. Bush administration initially kept the rhetoric at bay and developed an amicable enough bilateral relationship—though one that at times has been fraught with tension. Following Bolivia’s expulsion in 2008 of the U.S. Ambassador, Philip Goldberg, for allegedly meddling in the country’s internal affairs and encouraging civil unrest, and the subsequent expulsion of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the White House upped its criticism of the Bolivian government and for the past five years has issued a “determination” that Bolivia has “failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to [its] obligations under international narcotics agreements.”[ii] U.S. economic assistance for Bolivian drug control programs has slowed to a trickle. Nonetheless, in 2011 the two countries signed a new framework agreement to guide bilateral relations and are pending an exchange of ambassadors. Moreover, cooperation continues between the primary Bolivian drug control agency—the Ministry of Government’s Vice Ministry of Social Defense and Controlled Substances—and the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) of the U.S. embassy.
At the international level, Bolivia is seeking to reconcile its new constitution, which recognizes the right to use the coca leaf for traditional and legal purposes and recognizes coca as part of the country’s national heritage, with its commitments to international conventions. In June 2011, the country denounced the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs as amended by the 1972 Protocol and announced its intention to re-accede with a reservation allowing for the traditional use of the coca leaf. (The 1961 Convention mistakenly classifies coca as a dangerous narcotic, along with cocaine.) Unless more than one-third of UN member states object by the January 10, 2013 deadline, the Bolivian reservation will be accepted and the country will once again be a full Party to the Single Convention.
The approaching date for Bolivia’s potential return to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs provides an opportune moment to evaluate the Bolivian government’s progress achieving its drug policy objectives. Moreover, the Morales administration has been in office for nearly six years, providing a clear track record to evaluate. Adopting a “coca yes, cocaine no” approach, Bolivia has sought to decrease the cultivation of coca—the raw material used in manufacturing cocaine—while increasing actions against cocaine production and drug trafficking organizations. In 2011, the land area devoted to coca cultivation in Bolivia dropped by 13 percent, according to U.S. government figures, in contrast to net increases in Peru and Colombia. Seizures of coca paste and cocaine and destruction of drug laboratories have steadily increased since President Morales took office. Yet despite the positive results achieved to date, the government faces increasing challenges as the amount of coca paste and cocaine flowing across its borders from Peru has increased, the production of cocaine in Bolivia itself has risen, and drug traffickers have diversified and expanded areas of production and transportation within the country.
The Bolivian government has made significant progress facing the ongoing challenges of drug production and trafficking, in part due to the assistance provided by the European Union (EU), the United States, and others. The U.S. government should now recognize this progress in its annual determinations. The string of negative determinations are increasingly disconnected from reality in Bolivia and retain little credibility with the Bolivian government or with other governments in the region, which continue to see the annual U.S. rating as offensive and politically motivated. The signing of the framework agreement marked significant progress in U.S.-Bolivian bilateral relations. Both governments should build on that success by using the accord as a venue to discuss areas of concern, friction, and consensus. While differences will undoubtedly arise, it is in the best interests of both countries to maintain an open dialogue.
[i]Morales won the December 2005 elections with 53.7 percent of the popular vote. He was reelected in December 2009.
[ii]The White House. White House Presidential Determination: Memorandum of Justification for Major Illicit Drug Transit or Illicit Drug Producing Countries for Fiscal Year 2013. Washington, D.C.: September 14, 2012.