Source: The Economist
January 20th 2011
MEXICO CITY | TOURISTS who visit Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, or Cusco, Peru’s former Inca seat, are routinely given welcome cups of coca tea to mitigate soroche (altitude sickness). For centuries, people who live in the high Andes have chewed coca leaves, whose alkaloids act as a mild stimulant and help to ward off cold and hunger. The Spanish conquistadors declared coca a tool of the devil, until they saw how it improved the work rate of the Indians they sent down the mines.
But refine the alkaloids in coca, and you get cocaine. In 1961 a United Nations convention on narcotics banned the leaves, giving countries 25 years to outlaw this ancestral practice. Half a century on, consuming coca remains legal in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and some parts of Colombia, in defiance of the convention. In Bolivia and Peru, some cultivation is legal too. In 2009 Bolivia, where a new constitution protects coca as part of the country’s cultural heritage, proposed an amendment to the convention that would remove the obligation to prohibit traditional uses of coca. Other South American countries agree.
The amendment would have passed if no objections were raised by the end of this month. But this week the United States spoke up, probably scuppering the change. The European Union (at Britain’s behest) may follow. They argue that tolerating the use of coca harms efforts to suppress cocaine. Bolivia insists it would continue to fight cocaine and limit coca cultivation. But cultivation in Bolivia and Peru has long outstripped traditional use, and is rising sharply.
Yet this smacks of hypocrisy. The United States’ State Department’s website recommends coca tea for altitude sickness, and its La Paz embassy has been known to serve it to visitors. The UN’s declaration on indigenous peoples, which the United States endorsed last month, guarantees the protection of “cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions”.
“It’s clear to me that some people there [in the State Department] realise it’s senseless to continue the war on drugs,” says Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president of Brazil who wants marijuana decriminalised and is chairing a commission on drug policy worldwide.
But the drug warriors in the American administration seem to have prevailed over the diplomats. Bolivia is considering pulling out of the convention if its modest proposal is struck down. The State Department has been trying to repair ties with Bolivia’s socialist government since a spat in 2008 in which ambassadors were expelled. But all too often American policy towards Latin America has been dominated by drugs.Republish