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Congress Taking Steps to Punish Bolivia for Drug Production by Halting U.S. Aid

Times Staff Writer

Despite strong opposition from the Reagan Administration, Congress is moving to retaliate against a major drug-producing nation for the first time by cutting off all U.S. economic and military aid to Bolivia.

The Senate recently voted for a proposal sponsored by Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) to withhold $56.8 million in economic and military aid for Bolivia during fiscal 1986 until that country eradicates at least 10% of its coca crop.

The House is expected to adopt a similar measure later this month when it considers a foreign aid bill for fiscal 1986.

‘Powerful Message’

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Advocates of the aid cutoff argue that it will discourage the cultivation in Bolivia of coca leaf--which is used to produce cocaine sold in the United States--and will send what Hawkins described as “a powerful message to all drug-producing countries: Watch your step, or you’re next.”

Hawkins said that Bolivia, a major supplier of coca leaf, has failed to destroy “even one coca plant” since 1983, when it signed eight agreements with the United States promising to initiate an eradication program.

However, State Department officials contend that the Bolivian government, which they characterized as “very weak,” actually took a major step toward controlling coca production last August when it sent soldiers to police the Chapare region, where the crop is grown for export, and reportedly seized 925 pounds of cocaine. The region is, in the words of one official, “as lawless as the Old West.”

Administration officials are battling the threatened cutoff on grounds that it would have no impact on coca exports from Bolivia. And State Department officials argue that a halt in U.S. aid would plunge that country deeper into poverty, discouraging the continuation of democracy there.

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‘Biggest Miracle’

“The biggest miracle in the Western Hemisphere is that Bolivia has been able to survive as a democratic country as long as it has--that rates with ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not,’ ” said a State Department official who declined to be identified.

He said that until President Hernan Siles Zuazo took office 32 months ago, Bolivia had averaged more than one government per year since becoming a republic in 1825.

“What Washington does has an enormous psychological impact in that region,” the official added. “If we were to cut off aid now, it could be read as a signal that we’re withdrawing support from a democratic transition.”

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According to congressional sources, the aid cutoff is gaining momentum in Congress because drugs have become such a volatile political issue in many states along the southern U.S. border with Mexico and in Florida.

“The clear political trend here is that people are discouraged by our (lack of) progress in fighting drug trafficking,” one aide to the House Foreign Affairs Committee said. “People are saying that we’ve got to make an example of somebody.”

‘Easier to Pick On’

Although the Senate also voted to cut off aid to Peru for similar reasons, congressional sources predicted that the Bolivian amendment is more likely to survive the legislative process.

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“Bolivia is easier to pick on for a variety of reasons,” a committee aide observed. “They have done nothing (to halt coca production), and we don’t have any overwhelming political or economic interests there.”

In the House, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, is drafting an amendment identical to the Senate-passed measure.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bolivia is the second-biggest producer of coca leaf in South America behind Peru. The Bolivians cultivate between 25,000 and 40,000 metric tons of the leaves each year, or enough to produce 50 to 80 tons of cocaine.

Critical House Report

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Although Bolivia promised in the 1983 agreements to reduce coca cultivation in exchange for U.S. aid, a recent study by the House Foreign Affairs Committee found that “none of the agreements have been complied with, nor is there any prospect that the objectives will be met any time in the near future.”

Hawkins rejected the State Department argument that the current Bolivian government is powerless to do anything more to cut down on the coca crop. She noted that Colombia launched a highly effective drug crackdown after the assassination of that country’s justice minister in April, 1984.

Administration officials say that Bolivia is hampered by serious economic problems that encourage farmers to produce and sell coca.

Inflation has been so rampant in Bolivia that the country’s largest note, a 100,000-peso bill, is not enough to buy a pack of cigarettes.

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