The Struggle for Coca Decriminalization in Bolivia
1987–2005: Coca Leaves, Cocaine, and Neoliberalism
By José Mirtenbaum Kniebel
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
November 9, 2005
In 1989 a judge on the German Supreme Court declared that the right to “intoxication,” understood as the alteration of consciousness, is among the most essential human rights that make up the concept of a human being’s free will, and that as such, the state does not have the power to prohibit the consumption of substances that alter consciousness or the human organism. This legal decision came out as a response to a concern among German civil society when the possibility of decriminalizing drug consumption was discussed in Europe as a structural solution to increasing drug use in modern societies. Put directly, the human being has the right to alter its consciousness and organic operation via any medium, natural or chemical, as long as this does not affect the right of others not to do so. It is within this legal context that the consumption of medicinal plants such as coca is, by extension of modern “positive law,” a human right, as it is also a usage and custom that must be universally respected and guaranteed by contemporary states’ legislation.
In the year 2008, when the preparatory meeting for the next United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics is held in Vienna, Bolivia’s “Law 1008” (the “Regulation of Coca and Controlled Substances Law”) will also turn 20.
In the year 1987, I participated actively, as advisor to the Bolivian Workers’ Federation (the Central Obrera Boliviana, or COB, in Spanish), in the rejection of this law that criminalized the coca plant, and, by extension, those who cultivated and consumed the leaves of this plant. In fact, the struggle to defend the coca leaf became a strategic issue for the Bolivian labor movement, appearing in the list of demands drawn up each year to present to the national government. One must understand that this form of negotiation between the government and the labor unions was a way of planning the budgetary policy for all sectors, but was also a demonstration of the union’s strength and political legitimacy.
On the other hand, in dealing with coca cultivation, it was the first time that an organization that defined itself as proletarian had acted directly on a problem understood as being strictly within the sphere of the peasantry. As such, the Bolivian labor leadership had serious doubts about how to defend coca’s “legality” despite its characterization as an “intoxicant” and “narcotic,” considering that coca is the raw material for cocaine. By 1987, the cocaine trade had become an important source of national income, despite being defined as “illicit.” In this context, the coca leaf’s stigmatization came about because of its association with “drug trafficking.” The Chapare region of the department of Cochabamba was a major free market of coca leaves for the fabrication of cocaine, although the Yungas region of the La Paz department also fed this activity.
It cannot be denied that Bolivian coca cultivation associated with cocaine production was a comparable source of revenue to tin or petroleum production in 1987, and perhaps of even greater economic impact. It has been calculated that at that time, the money generated by the production of coca and cocaine added up to US$3 billion annually, with some $600 million staying in circulation in the national economy, of which 10 percent ended up in the hands of the coca growers. This complex aspect of the issue was not clearly understood by the leadership of the workers’ umbrella organization, the COB, due to the fact that coca was defined as a “drug,” or, in the language of the United Nations, a “controlled substance.” Nevertheless, for the purpose of rural development, coca could be seen as a natural resource with high trading value if it were not used exclusively for cocaine production. At the time, it was already understood that other beneficial and high-value products could be extracted from coca leaves — for example, tea, chewing gum, syrup, toothpaste, and candy.
Law 1008, often described as “Draconian,” was a completely unconstitutional law because it violated the principle of presumption of innocence, forcing the accused to demonstrate their innocence from jail. Even with such violations of basic human rights principles, Law 1008 was passed during one of the most shameful sessions of the Bolivian Congress. Minutes before its approval by the MNR-MIR steamroller, the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) promised COB leaders that the law would not pass as long as they were there. Then, after having committed to supporting to the COB, and under the watchful gaze of U.S. Embassy representatives — who were seated in the presidential box seats of the Congressional chamber — all the congressmen, including those from the MIR, raised their hands in favor of Law 1008. The war on coca began at that moment.
The classification of this plant resource moved into the legal area of criminalization, in which coca became an iter criminis resource, that is, a “path” toward the crime of “narco-trafficking”; possibly one of the most ridiculous definitions in the history of jurisprudence. What’s more, coca’s chemical structure shows it to be a stimulant and not a narcotic like opium. But despite the scientific evidence and legal incoherencies that would support coca’s rational defense, Law 1008 was adopted as a law of the Bolivian Republic.
Law 1008 is one of the first direct international impositions regarding the use and production of a natural resource, although neoliberalism was already the prevailing system of Bolivian economy. On the other hand, this imposition violated the cultural sovereignty of a people, as well as the legal sovereignty of a republic. But all the arguments employed at the time were like kicking air, due to the climate of the pensamiento único, the unitary mindset that the “drug war” doctrine had generated.
Now, in the year 2005, the question remains open: what has this legislation really accomplished? I will try to answer this question in the general context of the goal of decriminalizing coca, which is today being taken up again as a basic principle by the coca growers of the Yungas and their leader Dionisio Núñez.
Drug War Doctrine and Global Security
For those who lived through the spirit of the 1980s, a mediocre North American movie star gave that era its structural emphasis; his name was Ronald Reagan. As president of the rising “Star Wars” empire, he was such an overwhelming force in the establishment of “new” free-market economic policies that these became known as “Reaganomics.” These policies simply meant making the richest richer and the poorest poorer. The middle classes would receive the system’s benefits through a type of “trickle-down economics”; the luck of fallen crumbs from the great table of global capitalism.
During this same period, Central America was bleeding due to the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The “contras” came into action thanks to funds from drug trafficking and weapons sold to Iran. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse with Mikhail Gobachev’s confessions and now famous perestroika. Poland was now in the midst of a process of trade union democracy, stimulated by Pope John Paul II and led by Lech Wałęsa. The Muslim world was captivated by the actions of Iran’s radical ayatollahs, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict entered into a new logic with the rising popularity of Yasser Arafat. Meanwhile, Bolivia entered the cycle of neoliberal monetarism, nourished by the productive complex of the coca-cocaine political economy.
This is a partial synthesis of the global political climate in which chemical substances and psychotropic drugs now played an important role in the “illicit” sector of the processes of transnational capital accumulation.
Cocaine’s popularity in the United States came about after a rise in the price of amphetamines, whose use had seen a massive jump. Cocaine consumption gained its socioeconomic importance by replacing the synthetic drugs used by a large sector of the middle classes seeking stimulant euphoria. The North American consumer society sought this euphoria of “stimulation” in a time of savage competition imposed by the thought structure of “Reaganomics.” People needed to be awake and alert, after a period as “relaxed” as the previous years of “hippie” leisure, the culture of psychedelic protest, of opiates and cannabis. In this sense, the “yuppies” entered the historic stage, following the script of Darwinist values called for by the Reagan-Thatcher duo’s radical liberalism. That is to say, savage competition and survival of the fittest, without measuring the consequences of the high resulting social cost.
The cocaine era’s first economic opening came in the city of Miami, which had entered into a very severe economic crisis due to OPEC’s imposed terms of trade and the change in the modes of production in nearly every competitive society in order to further capital accumulation. The United States was entering the era of the service economy, and exporting its capital assets to countries with lower labor costs.
The major U.S. banks needed a fresh injection of financial capital that did not necessarily come out of federal reserves. Reagan was following the model of government non-intervention in private activities, and therefore the new money could come from anywhere. The point of entry for this capital flow was the city of Miami, the mouth that fed drug trafficking capital to a social body sick from a financial crisis. Miami offered a much more flexible area for money laundering than Switzerland, and as such the opportunity cost, while still carrying certain risks, held a very high rate of return.
In this fashion, Colombian traffickers and Cuban exile businessmen in Miami put together — on top of the cannabis trafficking networks already consolidated in the 1970s — an efficient cocaine distribution stream for a society hungry for artificial and exotic stimulation. We must not forget that the “queen” of Western intoxicants, the “champagne” of drugs, is a kind of bastard daughter of Mama Coca.
Well, what could be more exotic for the young nouveau riche than the bastard child of an Andean deity, with extraordinary powers of immediate stimulation? The yuppie generation, with their predatory conduct for accumulating money, would love Mama Coca’s bastard daughter to the beat of $100 billion per year. It is estimated that in 1987 there were some 25 million “recreational” cocaine users in the United States, with a similar but unspecified number in Europe.
With their massive consumption, cocaine consumers kept around 400,000 Andean peasant families busy with coca production, along with a range of services in the entertainment, transportation, construction, chemical, banking, hotel, and professional service sectors. The coca-cocaine political economic complex had consolidated a series of production and consumption networks, but at the same time it gave way to the proliferation of public agencies devoted to the “war on drugs.” It is estimated that between 1987 and 1990, the United States created some 60 federal, state, and local offices that saw to various aspects related to the consumption of drugs and the “war” on the latter. A true “crusade” was unleashed, although this war’s “victories” are of the most pyrrhic nature. Today, the structural problem continues with even greater intensity, with the rise of an even greater variety of drugs available for recreational consumption in northern hemisphere countries, along with the aggravating factor of populations of southern countries now having higher rates of consumption of low-grade drugs, such as “oxi” and cocaine sulfate pastes.
The “drug war” doctrine became one of the most efficient edifices in a gigantic bureaucracy of government agencies to resolve the rising unemployment among police, intelligence agents, and retired military personnel. In 1990, private contractors for the Defense Department calculated that in order for the military-industrial complex to function in the United States, conflicts were needed to generate some $20 billion annually. Of course, the “war on drugs” did not guarantee this type of financial yield. But that same year, the arms industry’s revenue problem was solved when George Bush Sr. started the first Gulf War. In this context, the “war on drugs” took Latin America as its epicenter. This would eventually receive a financing of $3.5 billion through “Plan Colombia,” with subsequent increases for “counterinsurgency,” “drug war,” and “antiterrorism” activities. A true Molotov cocktail in U.S. geopolitics.
The impressive amount of money and mobilization around the coca-cocaine complex served to help rescue U.S. banks from an immanent financial crisis at the end of the 1980s. Systematic money laundering on the part of Latin American traffickers provided solvency and stimulated the circulation of hard cash, lifting the banks out of crisis. On the other hand, cocaine trafficking and the profits this generated boosted the “informal” economies of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. So-called “transit” countries, such as Chile, Paraguay, and Brazil, also benefited. It is obvious that those who took advantage of these paths to high financial returns were the same people who were bureaucratically conscripted into following the “drug war” doctrine, just as the organized trafficking cartels did, with a shared risk spread across the hundreds of thousands of rural coca growers located across the latitudes where the plant grows. Nevertheless, Andean peasants, especially Bolivians and Peruvians, paid the heaviest price under prohibition for this highly productive, value-added activity. Today, it is rural Colombian communities that are paying the price, victims of the criminal practice of chemical fumigation to eradicate coca plants.
In Bolivia’s case, the country’s 1987 financial reports included an “errors and omissions” column that added up to nearly $400 million, while U.S. “war” assistance was barely $20 million. Under these conditions, with the generation of “internal savings,” neoliberal ransacking policies were absolutely viable. Similarly, “alternative development” policy was also developed starting in 1987. This policy would try to substitute legal crops for voluntarily eradicated coca, especially in the Bolivian Chapare area. In 1988, Law 1008 was passed, dividing coca-producing land into three zones: traditional (in the Yungas region of La Paz and Vandiola); in transition (the Chapare); and the prohibited zone (the rest of the country). The purpose of this law, just like similar laws passed in all the Andean countries, was to control the vector of illicit capital accumulation from cocaine and direct it toward different sectors of the speculative economy where stimulus was needed. As such, cocaine and coca interdiction and eradication was selectively programmed, according to the alliances established between the repressive forces and cocaine traffickers.
Of course, those who had possession and control of the raw material, as in any other instance of capitalist exploitation, would pay the consequences and cost of cocaine’s surplus value, with the added social stigmatization of producing a controlled substance.
Nevertheless, organized coca growers have achieved results that this war doctrine’s designers would have never expected. That is to say, thanks to the “war on drugs,” Bolivia may have its first indigenous president: a coca grower. An irony of Mama Coca? Or simply the result of stupidity and an insatiable desire for easy capital accumulation?
A question remains: Is the world safer because of the implementation of anti-drug policies? I think the answer is obvious. Aside from whether or not psychotropic substances are consumed, the world today is a more turbulent place. We can say with some certainty that “drug war” policy has multiplied the sources of drug production, and correspondingly multiplied the levels of general drug consumption.
A Few Preliminary Proposals for Decriminalization
Without losing sight of the goal of coca decriminalization, the coca plant must be considered as not only a “natural resource” with great potential for added value, but also as a “cultural resource” that has a symbolic, transcendental value to the peoples who use the leaf in its natural form, and even in forms that might not be defined as natural. In that sense, taking into account the principal of universal rights, the criminalization of the coca plant is a violation of human rights that must be corrected. The right to consume, produce, and sell coca and its multiple natural derivatives must be elevated to a constitutional right within the new Bolivian constitution, which will be drafted at the Constituent Assembly of 2006.
Coca is a natural resource associated with the great biodiversity of the Amazon, and it belongs in that sense in the field of ecological conservation programs. Several studies on coca carried out throughout the last twenty years of eradication programs have demonstrated that coca cultivation, under planned production regimes, is an ecological benefit. Law 1008, then, is an attack on the conservation of elements of Amazonian biological diversity, and should be overturned.
What’s more, it has been demonstrated that products which are completely beneficial to society — and economically beneficial to their producers — can be extracted from the coca plant. This plant should therefore be decriminalized and taken off the controlled substances list that the United Nations drew up based on unscientific and unreliable data.
Finally, in order to resolve the problem of coca and cocaine, comprehensive decriminalization policies must be designed, with the possibility for comprehensive programs to legalize the consumption of coca and many of its derivatives, including cocaine. It is clear that this proposal would be an exercise in international compromise, but the act of proposing it from a country like Bolivia is, above all, an exercise in the right of sovereignty.
Dr. José Mirtenbaum Kniebel is the director of postgraduate studies at the Gabriel Rene Moreno Autonomous University, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
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