Bolivian Voters Tell U.S. to Butt Out

The U.S. drug war in Bolivia took a severe blow this week as results trickled in from last Sunday's presidential elections.
The U.S. drug war in Bolivia took a severe blow this week as results trickled in from last Sunday's presidential elections. Despite -- or more likely, because of -- an ill-timed, last minute intervention by the U.S. Ambassador designed to frighten voters into choosing "made in America" candidates, Evo Morales and his Movement to Socialism party made an unexpectedly strong showing in the elections and are now positioned to help choose the nation's next leaders and help set the nation's coca policies.

Morales rose to international prominence as a charismatic leader of Bolivia's embattled coca growers and campaigned on an openly anti-U.S. and anti-eradication platform. According to the latest election results, he polled 17% of the vote, trailing only two other candidates, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Manfred Reyes Villa, by less than five percentage points. Morales called the results a "moral victory" for him and the cocaleros.

Now, Morales, as leader of the Movement to Socialism, is poised to lead as many as six of his fellow party members into Bolivia's 27-member senate, where he will be well-positioned to thwart new efforts to punish coca growers. Also, Morales and the party could conceivably trade their political weight to one of the other candidates in return for pledges to halt or reverse Plan Dignity, the U.S.-imposed "zero coca" eradication program that has created festering violent upheaval across the country.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, will now also play a key role in a planned special session of the Bolivian congress designed to amend the country's constitution. Bolivia's indigenous population will seek greater control over mineral deposits during the session, and Morales will now be able to take his constituents' concerns into the constitutional convention.

Morales had been running at about 10% in the polls, only to get an inadvertent last-minute boost from U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha, playing the role of the Ugly American. Last Wednesday, Rocha attempted to threaten Bolivia with dire consequences if voters made the wrong choice, but his heavy-handed effort backfired.

"As a representative of the United States, I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if you elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of U.S. assistance to Bolivia," Rocha said in a widely reported and widely condemned speech.

As criticism of Rocha's remarks from all parts of the Bolivian political spectrum grew, Morales dubbed Rocha his "campaign manager" and skillfully played to Bolivian nationalism. Morales repeatedly mentioned that the U.S. had failed to reward anti-coca efforts with open markets for Bolivian fruits and textiles. That message resonated with voters in South America's poorest country.

Now, the U.S. faces a new, restive and less compliant Bolivia. Morales polled especially well among the country's Indians and mixed-race people, who make up a majority of the country's 8.3 million population. Even if the U.S. doesn't want to recognize the new political realities, Bolivian politicians will push coca eradication only at their own risk.

Bolivia, Washington's Latin America drug war "success story," is now on the verge of becoming a major problem for U.S. drug warriors. Policies crafted in Washington have thrown up a new leader in Bolivia, and Morales is no friend of what people south of the Rio Grande still widely refer to as "U.S. imperialism."