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, is a leading candidate to become the next president of Bolivia when the South American country goes to the polls this weekend. The December 18 election could mark a series of historic firsts in Bolivia. If elected, Morales — the frontrunner in Sunday’s Bolivian election – would be the first indigenous person and the first “cocalero,” as coca farmers are known, to ascend to the presidency. Polling suggests Morales holds an edge over former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga and political newcomer Samuel Doria Medina.
Although leading in recent polls, if Morales does not secure a majority of the votes, the decision to select the president then falls to the Bolivian Congress.
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.
His stance on coca farming — a central plank in Morales’ platform – 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 seeks to persuade 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 is elected president of Bolivia and 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.