User:Juliechea/sandbox/Imperialism in the 'War on Drugs'



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]

[to be seen] The second kind of imperialism is the one taking place between the indigenous people and the government. In fact, coca is seen as a cultural inheritance of the indigenous people. Moreover, it is used by indigenous people as a remedy to many sicknesses, particularly because there are lots of vitamins on it and there are also economical benefits of coca products. The eradication of coca leading by Bolivian government could then be seen as a real injustice for indigenous people[2].

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


History of Coca Cultivation in Bolivia


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 bearing religious and socio-economic importance from the Incan era, it dulls pain, hunger and fatigue, facilitates digestion, provides vitamins and minerals, and is used in medicine and rituals.[3][4] The leaves also have a traditional significance in social exchanges, gathering, and marriage.[5]

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. The coca-cocaine economy was an essential economic stabiliser that boosted national reserves and inward investment, providing security to miners and farmers displaced from contracting economic sectors[6]: the population of Chapare, a major coca-growing region, increased from 40,000 in 1980 to 215,000 in 1987, while the coca acreage grew from 16,370 to 51,798 hectares.[7] A 1991 US report found that 350,000 people were dependent on the coca economy for income, and that drug trade constituted 30% of Bolivia’s GDP.[8]

The American 'War on Drugs'


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”[9]. It was popularised 1971 by President Richard Nixon, who described illegal drugs as 'public enemy number one' in a Congress speech on drug control.[10]

In order to fight this, the United States Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986) which, among other things, attempted to eradicate the cultivation of coca in Colombia and Bolivia. This policy has, however, been slowly losing public support.

While the policy seems plausible, further examination calls into question its justification. For one, coca's medicinal and other uses are discounted as trivial without reason. The World Health Organization and the United Nations have confirmed that coca is neither addictive nor harmful. Instead, coca is judged for its potential conversion through chemical process to cocaine.

Coca eradication as American imperialism in Bolivia


Western justification of coca eradication contrasting with the indigenous view of coca as economically and culturally significant


In the western world's view, the destruction of crops (including coca, opium poppy, and cannabis) used in drug production can contribute greatly to the drug control. Therefore, especially after 1995, the US government shifted its focus from drug interdiction to crop eradication and reinvigorated its eradication programs aiming at coca cultivation in the South American Andes, the source of most cocaine in the United States[11]. In general, eradication programs are driven by the theory that decreasing coca production will make cocaine scarcer and more expensive and thereby decrease drug use.

From Bolivia's perspective, as the world' s third largest producer of coca leaf, coca has been cultivated in Bolivia for use in traditional medicine, spiritual rituals, social interactions and commercial trade for a long period. Coca can aid in the healing process as anesthetic. Moreover, it is also used to ward off fatigue, hunger, and thirst. Many Bolivians drink coca tea to cope with the high altitudes in the north[12]. In a word, Coca is highly integrated to the indigenous Bolivians'lives to keep them healthy and energetic. Furthermore, the coca leaf plays a fundamental role in the dynamic of social interchange in Bolivian cultures. Likewise, coca is very important when a leader assumes his position in the community. Proposing to women involves a handful of coca leaves as a gift. Coca is passed around and chewed at social events[13].The connection between the indigenous residents' cultural and social life and the coca is tight and solid. Noticeably, the flow of economic benefits from the coca trade has been unambiguously positive even during the economic depression and the wages for coca leaf production are higher than for any other cash crop in Bolivia[14].

Mechanics of imperialism in the coca production system ( power relations)


Exploitation on various scales ( state/ indigenous)


- problems with macro economics and political imperialism ( how the US screws around with Bolivian domestic policy)

eradiction - increase from supply side environmental and macroeconomics - because of eradication policy -put pressure on supply - increase in coca production - destruction of traditional economy and structure - taken away a lot of the land from indigenous farmers - coca becomes an industry - economy --> macroeconomics ( bolivian currency strengthened - it becomes of higher value in relations to other - on the currency market, a whole bunch more people now need bolivarian pesos - over a long period of time, if we put out a lot of ressources ( this one) the currency is strengthened)

Environmental problem - monoculture and food dependency ( systems thinking)

On a local scale, indigenous people are socio-economically imposed upon by US imperialism. With the collapse of the world tin market and the fall in the price of agricultural products, working in coca-production zones became the more lucrative option despite its relative risk. Because of the criminalization of coca cultivation brought by US policy, indigenous people face not only the loss of their cultural heritage connection to coca and the exogenous stigmatization of their practices, but also now face uncertainty and risk in labor market choices because of complications around coca criminalization.[15]




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  2. Russo, M. The Coca Plant and Bolivian Identity.International ResearchScape Journal: An Undergraduate Student Journal. 2015; Vol. 2 article 3. Available from: [Accessed 7th December 2018].
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  7. Painter J. Bolivia and Coca: A Study in Dependency. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner; 1994.
  8. US Office of the Inspector General. Report of Audit: Drug Control Activities in Bolivia, 2-CI-001. Washington DC: Government Printing Office; 1991.
  9. Editors. War on Drugs. 2017. Available from: [Accessed 8th December 2018].
  10. Richard Nixon. Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control. 1971.
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  12. Garza M. U.S. Drug and Coca Eradication Policies in Bolivia [Internet]. 2004 [cited 4 December 2018]. Available from:
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  15. Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bolivia, January 2018, available at: [accessed 9 December 2018]