US ambassador says coca eradication key in Bolivia

LA PAZ, Bolivia – Washington’s ambassador to Bolivia suggested on Wednesday that the eradication of coca plants must continue if the South American country is to keep receiving millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

Speaking after his first meeting with Bolivia’s new drugs czar — himself a coca farmer — David Greenlee said their «very positive» talks centered on cutting coca cultivation in Bolivia — the world’s third-biggest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

«The excess coca is an important subject for Bolivia and for us. … On a certain basis we can move forward,» Greenlee told reporters after the meeting, adding that an official with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Bolivia had reported good progress in anti-drug policing.

During election campaigning. Bolivia’s new leftist president, Evo Morales, pledged to roll back U.S. efforts to curb coca growing but has since urged farmers to respect a law limiting the amount of coca each family can grow.

Morales first rose to political prominence as the leader of the country’s coca farmers, and led sometimes violent protests against U.S.-backed eradication efforts in Chapare, the coca heartland from where drugs czar Felipe Caceres also hails.

On Tuesday, Morales urged the United States not to reduce its drug-fighting financial support to Bolivia as outlined in a current proposal by the Bush administration calling for a cut to $67 million from $80 million.

U.S. officials say the proposal is not linked to concerns over the Bolivian government’s policy on eradication and is instead due to a shift in budget priorities in Washington.

But Greenlee said cooperation was connected to the continued destruction of illegal crops.

«For us the cooperation depends on three subjects. One is eradication — the reduction of excess coca. It appears to us that there is a lot, a lot of excess coca. Another element is interdiction and the third is alternative development,» Greenlee said in comments issued by the U.S. Embassy.

The cultivation and sale of limited amounts of coca is legal in Bolivia but the United States contends excess production of the plant, the main ingredient used to make cocaine, eventually ends up on illegal drug markets.

The plant is prized by Bolivian indigenous farmers for traditional medicinal uses and herbal teas.

Indians in Bolivia chew coca as a mild stimulant to ward off hunger and altitude sickness, and Morales has said he wants to increase production of the leaf for use in medicines, toothpaste and soft drinks.

Morales has said he is seeking a drug-fighting program whose emphasis would be «No to zero coca, but yes to zero cocaine» and insists he is opposed to drug trafficking.