Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Imperialism in the 'War on Drugs'

Introduction edit

Imperialism, broadly defined, is the extension of power by one state or institution over another, typically involving unequal power relations in cultural, economic or political exchange. Historically, the term evolved into its current use in the context of colonialism, particularly that of the British Empire, although Edward Said makes a distinction between imperialism and colonialism.[1]

This chapter seeks to explore the Bolivian coca eradication campaign from the paradigm of imperialism. It argues that the funding and execution of coca eradication by the United States government is a form of modern imperialism that implements American policies to solve an American problem at the expense of and without consultation with local stakeholders.

Historical context edit

History of Coca Cultivation in Bolivia edit

Erythroxylum coca, a tropical shrub used in the production of cocaine, has been cultivated in the Andes for centuries and has significant cultural and economic value to the region. As one of the first trade goods in the Andes, it dulls pain, hunger and fatigue, facilitates digestion, provides vitamins and minerals, and is used in medicine and rituals.[2][3] The leaves also have a traditional significance in social exchanges, gathering, and marriage.[4]

The upsurge in U.S. demand for cocaine--and hence coca--in the 1980s came during a period of economic crisis in Brazil amidst a political transition. Coca became Bolivia's most viable commodity and the coca-cocaine economy became an essential economic stabiliser that boosted national reserves and inward investment, providing security to miners and farmers displaced from contracting economic sectors[5]: the population of Chapare, which became a major coca-growing region in response to rising demand, increased from 40,000 in 1980 to 215,000 in 1987, while the coca acreage grew from 16,370 to 51,798 hectares.[6]

The American 'War on Drugs' edit

The term 'War on Drugs' refers to the United States' policy on banned narcotics, which was intended to “stop illegal drug use, distribution and trade by increasing and enforcing penalties for offenders”[7], and was popularised in 1971 by President Richard Nixon.[8]

President Nixon’s speech succeeded the Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed in 1986, in turn catalysed by the appearance of crack cocaine–a highly addictive form of cocaine that began widespread use in 1984 and 1985.[9] Cocaine-related hospital emergencies increased by 12% in 1985, and 110% in 1986.[10] The first Act was followed by a second in 1988, which laid out stricter regulations on crack in particular.

In this period, American foreign policy shifted to source-control, following that a significant enough cut in supply would undercut the market. This saw large amounts of monetary aid being channelled to the Bolivian military for eradication efforts.[11]

Coca eradication as American imperialism in Bolivia edit

US leverage in Bolivia edit

Clashing perspectives on the drug trade edit

Part of the conflict arose from the divergent perspectives apropos the growing drug trade: the U.S. pushed for a militarised solution in response to a growing amount of crack-related violence but were met with relative ambivalence. Bolivia lacked widespread drug violence, and the issue was not viewed as one of national security; there was a larger concern at the time with the political transition.[5]

There was emphatic local resistance to the eradication, and slogans such as ‘coca for development’ and ‘coca is not cocaine’ emphasised coca’s importance for rural communities.[5] The U.S., on the other hand, were frustrated with Bolivians for harbouring “denial regarding virtually any other aspect of the drug problem in Bolivia other than coca cultivation”.[12]

Political leverage via economic aid edit

Yet, given its weakened economic state, Bolivia was dependent on U.S. support for recovery, and were influenced by fears of being labelled a ‘narco-state’ and international pressure to comply with counterdrug efforts.[5] In 1983, Bolivia accepted $53 million in U.S. development aid, conditioned on achieving eradication targets of 500 hectares a year[13] and ‘satisfactory’ cooperation with antidrug efforts.[14] Attempts to appease U.S. concerns resulted in the approval of U.S. military involvement in counterdrug operations such as Operation Blast Furnace in 1986, and the passing of a new drug control law in 1988. With U.S. economic assistance tied to counterdrug cooperation, Bolivia could not afford the sanctions entailed by the alternative.[5]

A similar power relation played out with the 1989 Andean Initiative, which granted Bolivia, Columbia and Peru additional funding conditioned on acceptance of militarised efforts and renewed eradication targets and continued to favour enforcement over alternative agricultural and economic development.[5]

Facing resistance to the involvement of the Bolivian military, then-U.S. ambassador Robert Gelbard used influences with former Cold War allies to push the strategy, asserting that President Pat Zamora’s ‘mismanagement’ and ‘lack of clear leadership and decision-making ability’ jeopardised US economic assistance. The agreement was eventually signed under U.S. embassy pressure and for the release of development aid. The U.S. then began to bypass government officials they presumed corrupt while planning operations, and looked to remove these individuals. Notably, the U.S. succeeded in deciding the appointment of a key antidrug task force leader in their favour by threatening to remove aid,[5] demonstrating their ability to exert influence over the Bolivian government.

Consequences edit

Success, therefore, came at expense to the poorest stakeholders in the production chain, leading to social upheavals, falling property markets and widespread unemployment. Attempts to promote alternative crops, including a $32 million United Nations expenditure, largely failed. Coca, which accounted for over 90% of agricultural income in Chapare, offered higher returns than any other crop as it grew extremely well, was pest resistant and produced multiple annual harvests. Furthermore, it was easily transported and did not perish as quickly as crops like banana and pineapple. Those who did turn to alternative crops often found an insufficient market demand and ended up in debt.[15]

Furthermore, the heavy military presence made the population vulnerable to abuses of power. Multiple human rights watchdogs reported U.S.-funded soldiers stealing goods, burning buildings, and torturing coca growers.[16]

Ineffectiveness at curtailing cocaine trade edit

Source-eradication is a largely inefficient policy tool, generating only $0.15 in benefits per dollar investment as opposed to $7.5 per dollar for treatment and education policies.[17] The consequences of the coca eradication campaign have greatly outweighed any benefits; the basic efficacy of the campaign is questionable, since the suppression of one coca producer only results in another filling the vacuum. Despite significant reductions in coca cultivation in Bolivia and Peru, the eradication had essentially no effect on supply as Colombia took over as the largest producer.[15] Cocaine consumption in 2001 was almost the same as it was in 1997.[18]

There was also virtually no impact on the price of cocaine, largely because the cost of coca leaves comprises less than 0.5% of the street price.[15] The bulk of the cost comes from the other chemicals used in the processing, supplied largely by North American and European companies.[5]

Moreover, given the lack of viable alternatives, growers are likely to begin large-scale replanting, particularly if a similar suppression programme is successful in Colombia.[15]

Conclusion edit

The U.S. coca eradication campaign in Bolivia was an imperialistic campaign insofar as it exerted influence over Bolivia's economy and politics from a dominant geopolitical standpoint, utilising economic aid as leverage. Furthermore, the campaign was largely ineffective in addressing the cocaine trade, and was carried out at the expense of a dependent state.

References edit

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  2. Allan C. The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community. Smithsonian Institution Press; 1988.
  3. Baulenas A. Coca: A Blessing and a Curse. National Geographic History. 2016.
  4. The coca leaf in Andean societies – Bolivia [Internet]. 2018 [cited 9th December 2018]. Available from:
  5. a b c d e f g h Gillies A. (2018) The Coca-Cocaine Economy, the US ‘War on Drugs’ and Bolivia’s Democratic Transition (1982–1993). Andean Information Network. Available from:‘War-on-Drugs’-and-Bolivia’s-Democratic-Transition-1982-1993.pdf
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  7. Editors. War on Drugs. 2017. Available from: [Accessed 8th December 2018].
  8. Richard Nixon. Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control. 1971.
  9. Reinarman C, Levine H. Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1997.
  10. DEA History Book, 1985–1990 [Internet]. 2018 [cited 10 December 2018]. Available from:
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  12. Continued Bolivian Waffling on Counternarcotics Assistance to the Army. National Security Archive – The George Washington University. Washington DC, 1990.
  13. Malamud-Goti J. Smoke and Mirrors: The Paradox of the Drug Wars. Boulder (Colo.): Westview Press; 1992.
  14. United States General Accounting Office. Drug Control: US-Supported Efforts in Colombia and Bolivia, Report to Congress. Washington DC; 1998.
  15. a b c d Kohl, B. & Farthing, L. (2007). The Price of Success: Bolivia’s War Against Drugs and the Poor. NACLA. [online] Available at:
  16. Human Rights Watch/Americas. Bolivia under pressure: Human Rights Violations and Coca Eradication. Human Rights Watch; 1996.
  17. Kennedy, M., Reuter, P. & Riley, K.J. A Simple Economic Model of Cocaine Production. Santa Monica; Rand Corporation: 1994.
  18. Jordan, S. (2001). Bolivians rebel over ban on ‘sacred’ coca. The Guardian. [online] Available at: