Bolivia's Coca Boss Sets Ultimatum

Bolivian indigenous leader and MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) party deputy Evo Morales gives a press conference on the social crisis that reached the country in his office in La Paz, Bolivia on Tuesday, October 21, 2003.
The leader of Bolivia's coca leaf farmers warned the nation's new president Tuesday that if the poor do not see signs of progress within one month there may be a return of the massive protests that ousted his predecessor and left 65 people dead.

"Within a month, he has to start giving some clear signs," coca farmer Evo Morales told The Associated Press. "If not, once again, the people will take to the streets."

Morales, an opposition congressman, has thrown his support behind President Carlos Mesa, saying that former journalist's philosophy is very similar to the socialist thinking behind his own political party.

But Mesa has yet to state publicly his position on the issue of coca, a natural crop used as the base ingredient of cocaine.

Morales and the coca leaf farmers he represents are staunchly against a U.S.-backed government program to eradicate the crop, arguing that the crackdown has unfairly deprived thousands of their livelihoods.

Bolivian law permits coca farmers to cultivate limited amounts of the crop, as long as it is used for tea or chewing.

Sitting in front of a cloth in the shape of a coca leaf on the wall that said "Evo, President," Morales said he is happy to help authorities fight the illegal drug trade - as long as they focus on netting traffickers he says are inside Bolivia's Congress.

As for the coca leaf, Morales said production should be increased, so the crop can be exported for legal uses, such as toothpaste, gum and shampoo.

"I have offered to create a drug-fighting alliance," Morales said. "But coca is not a drug within the Aymara and Quechua (indigenous) cultures."

Morales was the top rival of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who resigned Friday after the deadly demonstrations. In last year's elections, Sanchez de Lozada won with just 22.5 percent of the vote, edging Morales, who finished second. The final vote went to Bolivian lawmakers, who chose the millionaire mining magnate over the leftist coca leader.

In an earlier news conference Tuesday, Morales congratulated the protesters for pushing Sanchez de Lozada out of office.

"Finally, after so many years, we toppled the symbol of neo-liberalism, of corruption, of the political mafia," Morales said.

The protests were sparked by opposition to Sanchez de Lozada's plan to export Bolivia's natural gas.

On Tuesday, Mesa faced a new challenge from supporters of the project. Civic leaders and businessmen in Tarija, a southern Bolivian state that is home to most of the nation's underground natural gas reserves, rejected his plans to hold a referendum on the idea. They demanded that the government move ahead with plans to export gas to the United States and Mexico.

Indians, labor groups and student protesters, however, argue that corruption in government would keep benefits of the project from ever reaching poor Bolivians.

Mesa is struggling to reunite South America's poorest nation, where the economic divide widened under the free-market policies of his predecessor. Unemployment is at 12 percent and many Bolivians earn about $2 a day.

By Vanessa Arrington