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Open Season on Intervening in Bolivia

It's Open Season on Intervening in Bolivia

Memorandum to the press: Preemptive Strike: Open Season on Intervening in Bolivia's Domestic Affairs Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere

Memorandum to the Press 03.19

6 May 2003

COHA Research Memorandum:

Preemptive Strike: Open Season on Intervening in Bolivia's Domestic Affairs

- A new post-cold war model for the projection of American interests and priorities throughout Latin America?

- Drugs and Terrorism - Washington's new cocktail before doing battle

On the morning of March 22, 2003, Bolivia's Vice President Carlos Mesa worriedly delivered a letter from the U.S. Embassy to Evo Morales, a former presidential candidate and the new parliamentary leader of the opposition group, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). The letter spoke of "trustworthy" intelligence existing that the embassy had received of an imminent coup d'etat led by dissident members of MAS along with sectors of the armed forces. Equally ominous, the letter spoke of a plot by a faction within MAS to assassinate Evo Morales and MAS Senate Leader Filemón Escóbar while the alleged coup was in progress.

MAS reacted immediately, denouncing the letter as a cynical attempt by Ambassador David N. Greenlee to sow internal divisions within MAS and paint that political party as violent and coup-prone. This would further justify more government crack-downs on it and on a major part of its constituency, namely the Bolivian coca farmers-known in Spanish as cocaleros. The event illustrates the ongoing tensions between the U.S. Embassy and MAS, as well as the latter's cocalero constituency. This comes as no surprise, given Greenlee's history during a previous term as interim U.S. ambassador to Bolivia in the mid-1980s, as well as the conduct of his immediate predecessor, Manuel Rocha, who directly intervened in the country's last presidential campaign to make certain that Morales was not elected to office. During the 2002 elections, Rocha had threatened Bolivian voters by observing: "I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if it elects those who want Bolivia to return to being a cocaine exporter, that result would endanger the future of U.S. aid to Bolivia." Greenlee even indicated that Washington was prepared to pressure for the suspension of loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, even if eradication was temporarily suspended while an independent study was being conducted by La Paz.

Greenlee's Intrusive History: The Late 80s David Greenlee served at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz in the mid-1980s under several titles, ending up as acting ambassador during a two-year interim when the embassy was without an official head of mission. Beginning in 1986, Greenlee pressed for the initiation of a policy of mandatory coca eradication, which was to become the cornerstone of the U.S. drug policy for the region. Greenlee's policies centered on criminalizing the consumption of the coca leaf, as well as the farmers who cultivated it, since the leaf is the ultimate basis for cocaine production. At the same time, far less attention was, and still is, being paid by Washington to targeting demand, money laundering, or the need to control the availability of the 15 precursor components needed to produce cocaine, which are usually imported from the United States, Europe, or neighboring countries like Argentina and Chile. Meanwhile, forced eradication will threaten to displace thousands of farmers and will continue to fuel rural warfare between the security forces and the cocaleros.

The shift in U.S. drug policy to a more bellicose posture based on an emphasis on the militarization of rural areas, especially the Chapare and now the Yungas, have precluded any prospects for improving the country's human rights record. One of the bloodiest events that occurred on Greenlee's watch took place in 1988. Greenlee is alleged to have been one of the main forces behind what turned out to be the Villa Tunari Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of at least 11 cocaleros and family members, including children, as well as serious injuries to more than 20 others, some of whom have been handicapped for life. The forced eradication policy pressed by the U.S. Embassy, led to Bolivia military personnel routinely entering coca farmers' private property by force, accompanied by instances of the rape of women, the theft of private property and food, with all of these acts going unpunished.

Prior to his September 5, 2002, appointment as ambassador to Bolivia, Greenlee served as ambassador to Paraguay. During this period, he was responsible for denying U.S. visas to hundreds of politicians, journalists, union leaders and others who had been publicly involved in fighting the U.S. policy of privatization. Such rejections were professedly done in the name of rooting out "corruption" in the Paraguayan government, yet it translated into being a well-concerted campaign of public intimidation of those opposing U.S. economic strategy in the country. Greenlee's record of vengeance while ambassador to Paraguay had good reason to be of great concern to Evo Morales, MAS, Bolivian social movements, and the general public, as a possible precursor of things to come. But what may really be at stake-both in Paraguay as well as in Bolivia-are conflicting national interests with the U.S., regardless of local values, respect for human rights or freedom of speech. As Greenlee put it: "I am the U.S. ambassador and represent the interests of my country and I always will."

The Coca Leaf is Not Cocaine

The coca leaf has played an extremely important role in the traditional culture of Bolivia's indigenous people, as the National Law Center for Inter-American Free Trade observes in Commentary on the Ley Del Regimen de la Coca y Sustancias Controladas: "the culture of Bolivia...includes the widespread use of coca since at least the 15th century and religious use from the 12th century. Many believe its deep roots are unique to Bolivia and they take pride in these traditions." According to the beliefs of Bolivia's indigenous peoples, the leaf is a gift from the Gods in order to survive the backbreaking hardships they have had to overcome throughout their history. The leaf is considered sacred due to its curative properties, but it also serves as a meal supplement and hunger suppressant.

Coca leaf's medicinal properties have been widely acknowledged throughout Bolivian society by those of all socio-economic backgrounds, as the leaf is used as a "folk remedy" for a wide variety of common illnesses. Moreover, it functions as a mild stimulant, allowing many miners, farmers and field workers who chew it to endure the day's travails. In a country in which poverty and malnutrition are widespread, many families count on the leaf as a substitute for the lack of bread on the table. According to a Harvard University study undertaken in 1975, one hundred grams of coca leaves can satisfy an adult's daily nutritional intake, while sixty grams provide one's daily allowance of calcium. Among its other properties, the leaf allows one to cope with the cold climate of the Andean highlands, helps alleviate gastro-intestinal problems, and is believed to increase concentration. The World Heath Organization has undertaken serious studies of the leaf and recognizes its many curative properties. The coca leaf is also used in the processing of a wide range of goods, ranging from wine to shampoo.

The coca plant can only be rendered addictive if the cocaine alkaloid is pharmaceutically extracted. In fact, coca leaf tea has played a collateral role in the treatment of cocaine addicts' withdrawal syndrome. Contrary to what many of those who are relatively ignorant of the matter believe, the coca leaf is non-addictive. Approximately five hundred tea bags of the leaf would contain only one gram of the alkaloid cocaine, but the human body would only be able to absorb quantities of the cocaine alkaloid in nanograms.

What Awaits Bolivia under Greenlee

On March 24, Bolivia's increasingly unpopular president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and Ambassador Greenlee met at the presidential palace. Greenlee stated that U.S. policy is against any legal cultivation of the leaf in the Chapare region, a prime growing area for coca. He claims that the relative "successes" of Plan Colombia-now called the Regional Andean Initiative-will drive that country's drug cartels to take advantage of the opportunity for legal coca cultivation in the Chapare.

Considering that since the late 1980's the U.S. has been unable to eradicate coca leaf cultivation despite repeated threats of blocking U.S. and other foreign aid, as well as embargoing some of Bolivia's bilateral trade, the tactics which the U.S. embassy plans to use to attain this tough goal is deeply worrisome to La Paz. Greenlee's egregiously imperial personal style will no doubt make use of Bolivian army personnel, some of whom have trained at the recently re-named Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which to a large extent has been responsible for supporting brutal military dictatorships throughout Latin America after World War II under the name of School of the Americas. In an interview with La Paz's daily La Prensa, he said: "I regret any shortcomings, any deaths, as a human being. I hope that there will be a solution, a dialogue." Let us be reminded that in Greenlee's lexicon, dialogue appears to mean that the cocaleros must fully accept Washington's conditions, along with the menacing implications for those living in the Chapare tropics. Contained in his firmness-"I have nothing to add in regards to my policy, as you already know, there is no change in our policy,"-is the implication that there will be more raids by U.S.-armed and trained Bolivian military personnel along with the inevitable civilian and military casualties which they bring.

Bolivia, unlike Colombia, does not have a recent history of armed insurgency and because of this, the present level of militarization being experienced by the country is in no way justified. The appointment of Greenlee as ambassador to Bolivia has meant that there will be an escalation of militarization and the attendant repression and violence that inevitably accompanies it. For these services, Uncle Sam will reward Sánchez de Lozada's government monetarily. Greenlee's appointment is in line with an overall strategy emphasizing direct military solutions to many of the Andean region's profound social problems, which increasingly are being addressed by turning to Bolivia's armed forces rather than by a political process of dialogue.

Recent reports of the military occupation of schools and hospitals in rural areas have coincided with already marginal investments in health, education, and other social programs in these neglected regions. These ongoing tactics have been taking place without widespread public awareness. The U.S. Embassy's public relations' campaign has eliminated previous distinctions between coca leaf cultivation, drug trafficking and terrorism as well as having downplayed the importance of social inclusion, which can only lead to stepped-up programs to criminalize such movements and ultimately hinder authentic democratization in Bolivia.

It is already dubious that the government of Sánchez de Lozada can complete its five-year mandate, given its extreme unpopularity, the intensity and breadth of social forces arrayed against it, and the bitter legacy of the violent conflict that erupted in the streets of La Paz in February, 2003, in which over 50 people were killed. Greenlee's intransigent "zero coca" policy, at best has already frozen attempts at fruitful dialogue between the government and the cocaleros and at worst, will ignite further violence. New blockades and other actions by the cocaleros have been called to begin this month. Yet again, Greenlee, perhaps misguidedly, claims in his diplomatic rhetoric, "I think we have a positive influence, we have supported Bolivian democracy, and we will continue supporting it." Bolivians, evoking the memory of the nightmare lived under the CIA.-backed brutal Banzer dictatorship during the 1970s, and the instability vested upon the country as a result of an incoherent U.S. drug policy over the year, do not necessarily welcome his so-called "support for democracy."


This analysis was prepared by Gabriela Prudencio and Shanti Salas, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs .

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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