Cocalero Evo Morales Wins Bolivian Presidential Election

Press Release December 18, 2005
Media Contact

Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Tommy McDonald at (646) 335-2242

Coca farmer Evo Morales, who came to prominence through his leadership of the coca growers union, won the Sunday’s presidential election in Bolivia. Morales is the first indigenous person and the first “cocalero,” as coca farmers are known, to ascend to the presidency. Securing up to 51 percent of the vote, Morales defeated former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga and political newcomer Samuel Doria Medina.

Morales stirred international interest with his bold pledge to decriminalize coca production if elected. The leaves of the coca bush have been used for thousands of years by the indigenous people and are considered a gift from the gods. The nutritious leaf is chewed or brewed in a tea that is the Bolivian national beverage. The leaves contain small quantities of cocaine which minimize the effects of living at the very high altitudes (over 13,000 ft.) of the Bolivian capital, La Paz, and surrounding plain. International law, indifferent to the traditional use of coca, has banned all use and cultivation of coca for decades because illegal cocaine is extracted from the leaf.

Morales’ position on coca farming calls for a zero tolerance policy on drug trafficking, but aims to control coca production and oppose U.S.-funded military eradication of the plant. Morales also wants the United Nations to remove coca from its list of controlled substances.

“Given the United States’ poor track record with international drug policy, the U.S. government has no right to bully other countries to follow our failed model. The ban on international trade of coca-based products has no basis in science or public health,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Coca deserves the same opportunities to compete legally in international markets as coffee.”

“Perhaps the time has come to put the coca back in Coca Cola,” said Nadelmann.

Bolivia is currently the world’s third-largest producer of coca, behind Colombia and Peru.

“If Evo Morales changes Bolivia’s policy toward the cultivation and use of coca, this change probably will stimulate a global conversation about the continued validity of the 45-year old international legal system that governs the drug trade,” said Eric E. Sterling, President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Silver Spring, MD. Sterling, formerly counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, visited Bolivia with Members of Congress in 1983.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

Sign up for updates from DPA.