Collision Course: Bolivia's "Coca, Si; Cocaine, No" Policy Runs Afoul of the International Drug Control Board and, Probably, the United States

Drug War Chronicle, Issue #475, 3/1/07

A confrontation is brewing over Bolivian President Evo Morales' effort to rationalize coca production in his country and expand markets for coca-based products. After decades of fruitless efforts to wipe out the coca crop in Bolivia -- the "zero coca" policy embraced by the United States and shoved down the throat of successive Bolivian governments -- Morales, a former coca growers' union leader, has crafted policies that allow for the increased cultivation of coca from the 30,000 acres allowed under current Bolivian law to 50,000 acres. Now, the Morales government is also pushing for expanded legal markets for coca products and, in a joint venture with the Venezuelan government, is preparing to begin coca product exports to that country.

That does not sit well with either the United States or the international anti-drug bureaucracy based in the United Nations. This week, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) took direct aim at Bolivia in its 2006 annual report (go to Special Topics, beginning with paragraph 171). In the report, INCB accuses Bolivia of violating the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics, which defines the coca plant as an illicit drug.

"The situation in Bolivia, which for many years has not been in conformity with that State's obligations under the international drug control treaties, continues to be a matter of particular concern to the Board," the report reads. "Bolivia is a major producer of coca leaf, and national legislation allows the cultivation of coca bush and the consumption of coca leaf for non-medical purposes, which are not in line with the provisions of the 1961 Convention."

The INCB was particularly concerned that Bolivia "has indicated its intention to review existing national drug control legislation, with a view to using coca leaf for a wide range of products, some of which might be exported." That, too, would not be in line with the INCB's interpretation of the Convention.

The language of the INCB report is a clear shot over the bow aimed at the Morales government's expressed policy of "coca, si; cocaine, no" and its efforts to expand the use of the coca leaf for medicinal and nutritional products. Worse yet, in INCB's view, Bolivia could set a bad example for other coca producing countries: "The Board is also concerned that policy developments in Bolivia could have repercussions in other countries in South America," the report fretted.

The United States has also expressed concern about Bolivian coca policy under Morales, as well as concerns about Morales' ties with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, whose government earlier this month finalized an agreement with Bolivia to finance the construction of coca processing plants in Bolivia and to import Bolivian coca products to Venezuela. So far this year, the US government has limited its expressions of concern to worries about the "anti-democratic" natures of the two left-leaning South American leaders, but the State Department's annual review of other countries' compliance with US anti-drug policies is due later this month. A key question is whether Morales' policies will lead the US to "decertify" Bolivia as being in compliance with those objectives.

The Bolivian government didn't help matters last week when its foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, told a gathering of the Organization of American States that Bolivia would never eradicate coca and that it was more interested in "consensus" than "democracy." "The struggle of the indigenous peoples goes beyond democracy," said Choquehuanca. "In the word democracy, there exists the word submission, and to submit to one's neighbor is not to live well. For this reason, we wish to resolve our problems through consensus."

Clearly, there is no international consensus right now on coca, and if the Bolivian officials and analysts Drug War Chronicle spoke with this week are right, neither is there any indication the Bolivian government is about to bow to drug warriors in Washington and Vienna.

Industrialization of coca processing and expanding legal markets are the correct course of action, said Bolivian Deputy (congressman) Asterio Romero Wednesday. A member of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party, Romero strongly supports the "coca, si; cocaine, no" policy. "First, I want to say that I am from the Chapare, I was a coca grower leader. It was always 'coca zero,' but there will never be zero coca," he told the Chronicle. "We fought for many years, we suffered many dead and imprisoned because coca is a source of economic subsistence for us. We will never allow other governments to impose 'coca zero' on us. We are a sovereign nation; it is a matter of Bolivian dignity," he said.

"While, yes, we fight against the drug traffic -- and we are doing quite well; seizures of cocaine and precursor chemicals are up -- we also have to decriminalize coca growing, and industrialization is the way," Romero argued. "We have to revalorize the coca, we have to find more markets for coca. There are friendly countries that help us, like Venezuela, and we thank them for that."

"With its opposition to the coca leaf, the INCB merely foments the drug traffic," said Silvia Rivera, founder of the Bolivian group Coca y Soberania (Coca and Sovereignty), professor emeritus of sociology at the University of La Paz, and advisor to Romero. "Every leaf that goes to good, healthy uses is a leaf that doesn't go to the traffickers," she told the Chronicle. "That's the best way to fight against the drug traffickers. Those bureaucrats at the UN simply do not understand; they think coca is a drug."

"It is the same thing with the government of the United States," said Rivera. "The Americans cannot recognize the rationality of other ways of life, and its approach is truly schizophrenic. It fears the drug trade, yet creates the conditions for it to flourish by trying to block other uses for the coca plant. The US tries to argue that Evo is in favor of the cocaine dealers, but it is the US policy that aids them. Also, the US has backed the narco-dictators in the past because they were radical fascists. That's who the US supports and gives arms to so they can kill the people."

In fact, rather than retreating in the face of criticism from the INCB and the US, the Morales government appears determined to push the envelope with its agreement to supply coca products to Venezuela. Bolivia is also making noises about going to the root of the problem by mounting an effort to amend the Single Convention to remove coca from its list of illicit drugs.

"This is a way for Chavez to push the limits and see what the boundaries are," said Kathryn Ledebur of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network, which has monitored the Bolivian coca economy and efforts to repress it for years. "Who is going to stop him? There are already substantial coca leaf exports to northern Argentina, and nobody says anything about that. Still, if this helps sharpen the focus on changing the Single Convention, that's a good thing -- it needs to be amended."

Ledebur doubted that the Morales government would make a concerted effort to amend the Single Convention in Vienna next year. "Let's just say that his domestic coca policy is more advanced than his international one," she said. "I see little chance of anything getting done unless there is some sort of concerted lobbying effort with Peru, and I don't see Peruvian President Garcia as someone who is willing to actively buck the US."

Such a move would require a concerted effort by coca producing countries, said Romero, and he didn't see that happening just yet. "It is the job of the Bolivian government to change the Vienna Convention," he said, "but it is also the job of Colombia and Peru to join us at the UN. While we here in Bolivia have with Evo a government with popular support to push this, in Peru and Colombia, the governments are neo-liberal and pro-imperialist and they will not join us. But we are anti-neoliberal and we are going to maintain this position. Still, we are willing to talk government to government and man to man about this."

But for Romero and the Bolivian government, standing up for coca is a matter of national pride. "We are a sovereign government, and we will move forward with our policies," he said. "Coca is not dangerous, coca is not poison. We will work bilaterally with countries that support our position. And countries that now try to impede us, like the US, well, perhaps we can send them some coca, too."

With Bolivia already facing off against the INCB, the next measure of the Morales government's coca policies will be the US certification decision, which should come by the middle of March. But given the current conjuncture in hemispheric affairs, with a rising tide of left-leaning governments and the US, obsessed as it is with affairs in the Middle East, losing influence in the region, the US may well step back from attempting to isolate and punish Bolivia via the certification process.

"The US still cannot step out of its anti-drug framework of using the military and forced eradication," said Ledebur, "but there is no agreement within the Bush administration about what to about certification. If it decertifies Bolivia, it loses what little leverage it has left. Bolivia now has other sources of assistance, and not just Chavez; it no longer has to blindly obey US dictates. If the US chooses to decertify now, what does it do next year?" she asked.

This is getting very interesting. The Morales government's "coca, si; cocaine no" policy is anathema to both the US and the INCB, but there appears to be little either can do to stop it, and chances are the Bolivian challenge will eventually aim directly at the 1961 Single Convention, perhaps knocking the first hole in what is the legal backbone of the global drug prohibition regime. Stay tuned.

Republished from Drug War Chronicles

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

More from Drug War Chronicle

Chronicle on the Scene Feature: In the Bolivian Chapare, Evo Morales' "Coca, Si; Cocaine No" Policy Brings Peace, If Not Prosperity

For more than two decades beginning in the early 1980s, various Bolivian governments working at the behest of the United States government embarked on a policy of forced eradication of coca crops in Bolivia's Chapare, a lowland region in the state of Cochabamba. It was a time of strife and conflict, human rights violations and peasant mobilizations as tens of thousands of families dependent on the coca crop fought with police and soldiers, blocked highways, and, eventually, coalesced into a powerful political force that helped topple governments. Now, with a Chapare coca growers' union leader, Evo Morales, sitting in the presidential residence in La Paz, times have changed and the days of a US-imposed "zero coca" policy are history.

Under US-imposed legislation adopted in 1988, Law 1008, only peasants in the traditional coca growing region of the Yungas were allowed to grow coca, and total coca production was limited to 30,000 acres. But that did not stop peasants from growing coca in the Chapare, where, in the early 1980s, production had boomed during the "cocaine coup" years of Gen. Luis Garcia Mesa. The development of coca production in this non-traditional, non-allowed area was the most significant target of US-backed forced eradication efforts throughout the 1990s and the beginning of this decade.

As a result, human rights violations by US-trained and -financed anti-drug forces were rampant. "During this period, I would receive an average of 10 complaints a day from coca growers," said former Chapare human rights ombudsman ("defensor del pueblo") Godofredo Reinecke. "Murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, all of that, committed by soldiers and police against the growers," he told Drug War Chronicle this week.

Now, things are different. While soldiers remain in the area, a special police force assigned to the area to prevent road blockades and other upheaval has been removed at the behest of the US -- because there was nothing for it to do. The peasant uprisings have ended, the blocking of highways is history, and human rights violations by the security forces have dropped precipitously. There is peace in the Chapare, and that is because of the abandonment of the "zero coca" policy.

The change actually began in 2004, before Morales was elected president, when then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada signed an accord with coca growers (or cocaleros) aligned with the Six Federations of the Coca Growers of the Tropics of Cochabamba allowing each family to grow one cato (1,600 square meters -- about the size of one third of a football field) of coca.

But as part of a broader policy of "coca, si; cocaine, no" adopted by Morales since he took office just over a year ago, the Bolivian government has in effect turned its back on the 30,000-acre legal production limit, now formally allowing an additional 20,000 acres in the Chapare to be cultivated with coca. But while such measures have brought peace to the region, it remains mired in poverty and desperation, as Drug War Chronicle saw during a visit there this week.

On a small plot of land near Villa Tunari in the Chapare, peasant farmer Vitalia Merida grows coca, along with oranges and bananas, in an effort to feed and clothe her seven children. Times are tough, she said. "My kids don't want to go to school for economic reasons," she told the Chronicle. "They want to go and make money." Her oranges and bananas bring only a pittance, she said, while her cato of coca allows her to pocket about $75 month, gaining her about $900 a year -- close to the average income in Bolivia, one of South America's poorest countries.

Despite the constant struggle to earn an income, said Merida, a former Six Federations leader (and still a member), life is better than in the days of forced eradication. "We are still poor, but we are free now," she said. "It is peaceful now. Before, we waited for the soldiers to come like bandits. They killed us, they took us prisoners."

As Merida spoke, the silence of the remote selva was broken by the roar of a helicopter. "No, they are not looking for coca fields," said Reinecke in response to a question. "They are bringing food and supplies to the soldiers and anti-drug police in the region." According to Reinecke, the US-financed resupply effort costs $12,000 a day, a veritable fortune in an area where fruit sells for next to nothing and coca for not much more.

US-funded FELCN (Special Force for the Struggle Against Narcotics) checkpoint between Cochabamba and Chapare, search being conducted for cocaine and precursors
While funding for sustainable development is lacking, the US continues to fund the military presence in the region. At a military base in nearby Chimbote, built with US funds, where once a thousand troops were stationed, the base is nearly deserted, but the interim commander, Col. Edwin de la Fuente Jeria, sits in air-conditioned comfort in his office.

The colonel was as cool as his surroundings. "We have nothing to do with the coca anymore," he allowed, before going on to say that he could say nothing without prior approval from his superiors. According to Reinecke, that was right -- the base now serves primarily as a training ground for local recruits doing their mandatory service.

While campesinos like Vitalia Merida are struggling, the Morales government is attempting to ease their plight. Part of that effort revolves around helping them get their crop to market. In a coca warehouse just outside nearby Shinahota, cocaleros are drying and weighing the crop in preparation for transport to legal markets in Bolivian cities.

"This is our local crop," said Six Federations member Felix Cuba at the warehouse. "Under this new program, we are able to sell direct to the cities without middlemen. This means a little more money for us," he told the Chronicle. "And it keeps the coca out of the hands of the narcos."

While there is constant pressure to earn more money to feed their families, growers are abiding by the growing limit, he said. "We are maintaining the one-cato rule," he said. "It is out of respect for the policy. Evo said we can grow one cato, so to defend the policy, it is only one cato we grow. The federation runs this and we do it through social control."

"Bananas, oranges, papaya, potatoes -- they all rot, and they don't bring much money," said Six Federations leader Juana Cosio as she watched the work at the warehouse. "This year, with all the rains, it is really bad. We grow coca as a back-up," she told the Chronicle. "But we need more markets. That is why we are trying to produce coca flour and other products. We are not narcos, we are just farmers. The government of Evo recognizes that, so now we are at peace here," she said.

Cosio pointed to the assistance provided by the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez, which is providing financing for coca industrialization plants in both the Chapare and the Yungas. "Venezuela is helping us to process and sell our crop," she said.

Under an agreement finalized earlier this month, Venezuela is not only financing the construction of processing plants, but has pledged to buy up to 4,000 tons of coca products, a major breakthrough for a crop whose export is banned under the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Under that treaty, the coca plant is considered an illegal drug allowable only as a flavoring agent (with the cocaine alkaloid extracted) or for pharmaceutical use, with chewing of coca leaves to be phased out by 1986.

That isn't stopping Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba, which is providing technical assistance, from moving ahead with a People's Trade Treaty signed a few months ago. That treaty allocates about $1 million in investment on coca production research. While the US and international narcotics control bodies have raised objections, Venezuela and Bolivia are standing firm. As Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro noted as he stood with his Bolivian counterpart, David Choquehuanca, earlier this month, the two nations will move ahead will projects to "value and dignify the coca leaf."


Industrialization of coca processing and expanding legal markets are the correct course of action, said Bolivian Deputy (congressman) Asterio Romero Wednesday. A member of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party, Romero strongly supports the "coca, si; cocaine, no" policy. "First, I want to say that I am from the Chapare, I was a coca grower leader. It was always "coca zero," but there will never be zero coca," he told the Chronicle. "We fought for many years, we suffered many dead and imprisoned because coca is a source of economic subsistence for us. We will never allow other governments to impose "coca zero" on us. We are a sovereign nation; it is a matter of Bolivian dignity," he said.

"While, yes, we fight against the drug traffic -- and we are doing quite well; seizures of cocaine and precursor chemicals are up -- we also have to decriminalize coca growing, and industrialization is the way," Romero argued. "We have to revalorize the coca, we have to find more markets for coca. There are friendly countries that help us, like Venezuela, and we thank them for that."

Coca production has now been "rationalized" in the Chapare, as the Bolivians like to say, and the repression and state-sponsored violence are a thing of the past, but great strides remain to be taken before the lives of cocaleros there will see real economic improvement. The Morales government, in conjunction with its Latin American allies, is doing what it can to help on that score. But, as the accompanying feature article in this week's Chronicle indicates, it is going to have a battle with the United States and the international drug control bureaucracy on its hands.

Anonymous said...

De-vilifying the coca leaf

Venezuelan funding of new coca leaf processing factories in Bolivia has renewed discussion on the future of licit coca products and US and Bolivian relations, but antiquated policies must be changed.
By Sam Logan for ISN Security Watch (09/03/2007)

The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs entered into force in 1964, making illegal the international trade the coca leaf. Since his inauguration, Bolivian President Evo Morales has fought the international stigma that surrounds the coca leaf, taking a simple message to the world: coca yes, cocaine no. Last year, during the UN General Assembly, Morales held coca leaves in his hand while explaining their importance to Bolivian culture and economy.

On 12 March, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs will meet in Vienna. It is unlikely the convention will reverse its age-old stance on the legality of the coca leaf. But recent events in Bolivia have attracted attention to the Single Convention, raising questions about the need to support an international regime that maintains an antiquated - and what many consider erroneous - position on the legality of the coca leaf.

In January, workers broke ground on a coca leaf processing factory at Lauca Ene, in Bolivia's Chapare region. The plant is one of two currently planned for construction in The Chapare and Bolivia's Yungas region - both are well-known coca leaf growing regions of Bolivia.

Due to Venezuela's financial involvement, the construction project has attracted international attention, renewing interest in Bolivia's fight to change the negative image of the coca leaf, the possibilities of an international market for finished coca leaf products, and what that market may mean for the future of licit coca production in Bolivia.
Just a leaf

When news about the construction of a coca leaf processing plant hit the international press, many opined on the possibilities of a world market for coca leaf products.

But before these markets can be established, the perception of the plant must be changed, according to Godofredo Reinicke, who has worked with coca leaf farmers in The Chapare for many years. In a recent telephone conversation with ISN Security Watch, Reinicke agreed that the short-term focus should be to convince the world that the coca leaf is not cocaine.

He pointed out the erroneous perception that Bolivians were producing cocaine, which further confuses the issue. Arguments that separate the coca leaf from cocaine must begin by explaining that Bolivians produce coca leaves, and that organized crime produces cocaine.

Both the US and the UN have worked hard to establish the plant as synonymous with the drug. Many would regard them as the same thing. Explaining the difference between a coca leaf and cocaine has been a passionate message led by Morales since before he took office.

The irony is that those closest to the US War on Drugs, the political driver behind demonizing the coca leaf, know of the plant's harmless nature. Only after a process of mashing coca leaves into coca paste, and then cooking that paste until it turns to power, does one render cocaine from the raw material.

Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project with the Institute for Policy Studies, argues that bureaucratic inertia, swinging in the direction of propagating the drug war and a supply-side eradication effort, suggests it is easier to maintain the status quo rather than consider an international market for licit coca products and push through a change in the wording of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

"Our understanding of coca has evolved in the past four decades, but the Convention has not," Sanho told ISN Security Watch in a recent interview.

"In the intervening period, however, an enormous global bureaucracy has been established to enforce the drug war through the Convention and that translates into countless jobs and billions of dollars in appropriations," Sanho argued, adding, "Those drug war bureaucrats enforce current policies because they can and it justifies their continued funding."

Sanho pointed out that "trying to equate coca leaf with cocaine is like trying to compare the stimulant effect of coffee to methamphetamine."

"They are worlds apart and only the woefully ignorant would try to equate the two."
Markets for the coca leaf

When Venezuela's ambassador to Bolivia, Julio Montes, announced in January that Venezuela would invest US$250,000 in constructing coca leaf production plants in Bolivia, he said Venezuela would be happy to import all the coca leaf products Bolivia produced.

According to the People's Trade Treaty, signed between Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba in April 2006, Venezuela will place no tariffs on importing finished coca products such as toothpaste, soap, candy or tea from Bolivia. But some in Venezuela wonder if a market for coca leaf products will catch hold in Caracas and beyond.

Andy Webb-Vidal, and independent consultant based in Caracas, argues finished coca products are not economically viable in Venezuela. "In Bolivia they've attempted before to find an economically-viable 'industrial' use for coca, such as using it as an input for 'coca shampoo' but it's never been economically-viable," Webb-Vidal told ISN Security Watch.

"If it has not worked in Bolivia there is no reason to think it will in Venezuela," he added.

Jim Shultz, director of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center argues that it is tough to gauge whether there is an international market for coca leaf products because none ever existed.

"Coca tea seems to be the product that has the most potential," Shultz told ISN Security Watch.

The US Embassy officially recommends that visitors to La Paz should drink coca tea to ease the effects of altitude sickness often suffered by those who disembark at La Paz's high altitude international airport, he says.

Shultz thinks the best market for a potentially viable coca leaf product like coca tea would be the very place it is least likely to go: the US.

"But the only reason why this is not possible is because coca sits on a UN list of banned substances along with heroine and cocaine."

"Heroine is a banned substance, but that doesn't mean I can't eat a poppy-seed bagel," Shultz pointed out. The poppy flower bud, when properly harvested, yields a sap that is used to produce heroine and other opiate products such as morphine and codeine.
Licit production

The coca leaf production factories should be in operation by September or October, according to various news sources. Reinicke says there could be as many as five facilities around the country.

"These plants could potentially process one to five tonnes of coca leaf a day," Reinicke speculated, careful to note the numbers were based on planners' loose projections, made according to the processing needs of a wide range of products. Initially the plants will produce coca mate, or tea, and a tri-herbal mate made of coca, chamomile and anise.

Alternative development programs pursued by the US to convince coca leaf growers to farm something else have never taken root. Economically speaking, a farmer will never choose to eradicate a whole crop to replant an alternative that has less economic value and is harder to bring to market.

"Rather than search for alternatives to the coca bush, we should be talking about alternatives for the coca leaf," Shultz said.

If coca leaf advocates manage to create an international market for coca leaf products, or in the unlikely event coca tea was imported to the US, a number of positive outcomes might be seen.

International demand for coca leaf products would create a need for raw materials inside Bolivia. The country's coca farmers would then realize greater earnings on their coca crops. As the market grows, Bolivian coca farmers who would normally sell their coca leaves to the black market might see incentives to sell their product in licit markets.

Finally, a decision to allow the legal and controlled import of coca tea into the US would revolutionize the nature of the relationship between that country and Bolivia. Even though this scenario is a long way off, the initial movements toward it began when Venezuelan money helped break ground on a factory that one day could produce coca tea for export to US markets.

"The move strikes me as vintage Chavez, driven by power and politics, aimed at consolidating his alliance with Bolivia and needling and further irritating Washington," Michael Shifter, vice president for policy with the Inter-American Dialogue, told ISN Security Watch.

The great irony could be that Chavez, in his constant search for ways to incense Washington, might actually catalyzed the process to bring his South American ally and his sworn enemy closer together.

Concerning the US position against the coca leaf, Sanho Tree shared the words of writer Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." He added that "as long as coca leaf is not refined into cocaine or coca paste, it should not be a concern of the United States or United Nations."


Sam Logan is an investigative journalist who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999. He is a senior writer for ISN Security Watch.

Anonymous said...

Bolivia plans to export coca in face of treaty

By Tyler Bridges

McClatchy Newspapers

Thu, Mar. 08, 2007

LAUCA ENE, Bolivia - The steel girders and brick walls going up on a muddy plot here wouldn't normally merit a second glance.

But the building, a small factory that will allow Bolivia to export coca tea and other coca-related products to Venezuela, is putting President Evo Morales on a collision course with Washington and the United Nations.

Morales sees the factory - and a second one being built elsewhere in Bolivia - as putting money in the pockets of poor coca growers while reducing the availability of the raw leaf for drug traffickers to produce cocaine.

But the International Narcotics Control Board, a U.N. entity, says Morales' plan violates a 1961 international anti-drug agreement signed by both Bolivia and Venezuela.

"What Morales is saying is not in line with the 1961 Convention, and Bolivia knows this," Koli Kouame, the board's secretary, said by telephone from its base in Vienna.

Asked whether exporting coca was legal, Morales told The Miami Herald: "I don't have to ask permission from anyone to produce coca products ... Just like in the past we used coca for the benefits of humanity, now we'll industrialize it. We don't have evil ends in mind."

To justify his actions, Morales cited two examples.

One is Coca-Cola's purchase of coca leaves from Peru. Kouame said that's legal because Coca-Cola processes the leaves to remove the alkaloid used for cocaine.

Morales also said South Africa imports coca from Peru. Kouame said South Africa has not signed the 1961 Convention.

The issue of coca farming - legal if restricted in Bolivia, where people have long chewed or brewed the leaves into tea for health and cultural uses - has vexed Morales since he took office one year ago.

The Bush administration has demanded that he continue his predecessors' policy of eradicating illegal coca plants. But forced eradication angers coca growers, who form the president's most loyal constituency.

Indeed, Morales grew to prominence as the leader of a coca growers' federation, a post he still retains.

Morales recently decreed that Bolivia could legally grow 20,000 hectares of coca, up from the previous legal limit of 12,000 hectares. One hectare equals 2.47 acres.

U.N. reports indicate, however, that actual cultivation is 25,000 hectares. The Bolivian government has acknowledged that only about half goes to traditional, legal uses.

Morales' government hasn't fully explained how much coca will go to the factory for export, but coca growers estimate no more than 2,000 hectares per year. That would be only 10-15 percent of the excess, illegal production.

Jim Shultz, a U.S. citizen who runs a research-oriented non-profit in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba that is sympathetic to Morales, believes the U.S. government should support a change in the 1961 Convention to allow Bolivia to export coca products.

"U.S. policy has been to try to get coca growers to produce bananas and pineapples, while using repression through forced eradication," Shultz said. "It has never worked" because coca generates at least double the income of any alternative.

"If Bolivia could soak up some of the crop for export, that would seem to be a good thing."

Morales made the same point to The Miami Herald in an interview Feb. 18.

"We want to have other products for coca so it won't go to the illegal market," he said.

Enter Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez, Washington's biggest headache in South America and a generous Morales ally.

He has donated $250,000 to Bolivia to build the two factories and agreed to import the coca tea, even though Venezuelans have no tradition of drinking the brew.

U.S. officials fear that coca leaves, once exported, would be turned into cocaine and that the new export market would only encourage more cultivation of illegal coca.

The International Narcotics Control Board seems virtually powerless to stop Bolivia from exporting coca products. Kouame said the board could only punish Bolivia by barring it from importing internationally controlled drugs such as morphine and codeine. The board has never sanctioned a country since 1961, he added.

The factory in Lauca Ene, due to be finished in three months, is in the Chapare, a lush area in the heart of Bolivia where virtually all the coca produced is refined into cocaine, U.S. and U.N. anti-drug officials say. The other factory will be in the Yungas region, to the west, where coca has traditionally been grown for legal uses.

"We've been asking for this for a long time," said Felipe Munoz, who heads the Lauca Ene coca growers federation, as he visited the factory site. "Other governments didn't listen to us. Evo has."

He leaned against a partially-built brick wall.

"The U.S. government pressures us to reduce coca production," he added. "Hugo Chavez helps us without conditions."