World and Nation

U.S. and Bolivia Spar as Partners in Drug War

The refrain here in the Chapare jungle about Americans is short but powerful: “Long Live Coca, Death to the Yanquis!”

So when President Evo Morales recently came to the area, raising his fist and shouting those words before his supporters, the irony was not lost on an elite wing of the Bolivian military that survives on U.S. support.

“We depend on the Americans for everything: our bonuses, our training, our vehicles, even our boots,” said Lt. Col. Jose German Cuevas, the commander of a Bolivian special forces unit that hunts down cocaine traffickers, speaking at a military base here in central Bolivia.

With Vietnam-era Huey helicopters donated by the United States swirling above the base and dozens of Bolivian officers who have been trained alongside the Green Berets at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., Bolivia ranks among the most muddled fronts of the Andean drug war.

Morales, a former grower of coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine, is both an antagonist and an active partner in American anti-drug policy for the region. He often describes the United States as his leading adversary and has made the right to grow the coca leaf a top symbol of sovereignty and anti-imperialism.

Yet he has also gone to unexpected lengths to restrain coca cultivation, and he accepts about $30 million a year from the United States — almost his entire anti-narcotics budget — to fight cocaine.

For now, Morales and the United States remain uneasy bedfellows. Morales has been hesitant to sever ties with the United States, especially because it provides Bolivia with about $100 million in development aid each year. It also grants tax-free access for Bolivian textiles, an economic lifeline for his country.

On the American side, officials argue that a sharp increase in coca cultivation could drive more cocaine to the United States, even though it is currently a negligible market for Bolivian cocaine. A deeper reason may be that the anti-drug money gives them a rare window into Morales’s government.

But this cooperation is coming under increasing strain. Radical members of Morales’ political base, instrumental in bringing him to power, are chafing at American anti-coca policies, especially here in the Chapare, where coca growers expelled American aid workers last month amid claims that they were conspiring to topple Morales’ government.