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Give Bolivian Leader Time

October 25, 2003

Three days after he was sworn in as president of Bolivia, Carlos Mesa asked his countrymen to give him "the space and the time to work." A humble plea, given the magnitude of the nation's problems. His opponents' response was swift: Mesa would have 90 days to meet the 72 demands the last president could not fulfill.

Mesa's political enemies are a real threat; they are part of an indigenous popular uprising that just ousted former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, perhaps the Bush administration's strongest ally in South America.

Here's the dilemma facing Mesa: Farmers want the right to cultivate the coca leaf in the regions where it has traditionally been grown. If Mesa chooses to comply, he'll be driven into a confrontation with the United States, which has invested heavily in a promising coca leaf eradication program in Bolivia. If he decides to continue with the eradication program, he'll be inviting domestic road blockades and violent confrontations.

For thousand of years, people in South America have used the coca leaf as a remedy for gastrointestinal ailments and motion sickness. But the coca leaf also is the raw material used to make cocaine. Drawing the line between tradition and illegal commerce is easy. Regulating the crop is not.

In view of the circumstances, the Bush administration should make it easier for Mesa to succeed by giving him some time to determine how he is going to manage the coca eradication program.

Begun in 1998 in the lowland jungles of the Chapare region in central Bolivia, the success of the program was spectacular; about 50,000 acres of coca plantations were destroyed. The operation also had serious unintended consequences. It led to violent demonstrations and clashes with police and the army. The eradication program had a devastating economic effect on thousands of farmers forced to change from the profitable coca business to humbler crops.

In the United States, the drastic reduction in Bolivia's coca crops was hardly felt. The supply of cocaine has not diminished and street prices for the drug remain stable.

Mesa is a thoughtful, prudent man with little political experience but with a reputation for honesty. He is also a recognized newsman in his country. If the new president fails to maintain political support from Bolivians, the political stage will be set for rival leader Evo Morales, who is deeply anti- U.S. In the long run, it's in the interest of Washington to be patient with Mesa and the conflicting demands he must reconcile.

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