LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Evo Morales' global crusade to decriminalize the coca leaf, launched in 2006 after the coca growers' union leader was first elected president of Bolivia, has finally attained a partial, if largely, symbolic victory.
A year ago, Bolivia temporarily withdrew from the 1961 U.N. convention on narcotic drugs because it classifies coca leaf, the raw material of cocaine, as an illicit drug.
It has now rejoined, with one important caveat: The centuries-old Andean practice of chewing or otherwise ingesting coca leaves, a mild stimulant in its natural form, will now be universally recognized as legal within Bolivia.
To press for coca's decriminalization, Bolivia's first indigenous president has chewed it at international forums, bestowed coca-leaf art on such figures as former U.S. Secretary of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and promoted the leaf as a "nutritional" ingredient fit for school lunches.
Bolivia's condition for rejoining the convention met resistance from 15 countries, including the United States and the rest of the G8 group of industrial nations, according to U.N. spokeswoman Arancha Hinojal. But the objections received by the United Nations ahead of Thursday's midnight deadline fell far short.
In order to block Bolivia's return to the convention a full third of its signatories — or 63 — needed to object.
Among nations objecting were Germany, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, Britain, Japan, The Netherlands and Portugal. Notably, neither Peru nor Colombia, the world's two other cocaine-producing nations, filed objections. Nor did any other South American nation.
The White House has, since 2008, maintained that Bolivia has failed to meet its international counternarcotics obligations.
"We oppose Bolivia's reservation and continue to believe it will lead to a greater supply of cocaine and increased cocaine trafficking and related crime," said a senior U.S. State Department official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
"While we recognize Bolivia's capacity and willingness to undertake some successful counternarcotics activities, especially in terms of coca eradication, we estimate that much of the coca legally grown in Bolivia is sold to drug traffickers, leading to the conclusion that social control of coca (allowing some legal growing) is not achieving the desired results," the official said in a statement.
Morales had long sought to remove language from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which obliges its signatories to ban the chewing of coca leaves, and temporarily withdrew from it on Jan. 1, 2012.
Morales' government said a celebration was planned for Monday with coca farmers.
"It's a great achievement but much remains to be done," said Rolando Vargas, a coca growers' leader in Cochabamba who belongs to Morales' union.
Coca leaves and coca tea, which fight hunger and alleviate altitude sickness, are widely available in Peru and Colombia and the highlands of northern Argentina. The coca leaf also has deep religious and social value in the Andean region.
Its non-narcotic extract has also been used to flavor the soft drink Coca-Cola.
Bolivia has the world's third-largest coca crop, by U.N. estimate, with 31,000 hectares (120 square miles) under cultivation. More than a third of that crop is legal.
Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and U.S. counterdrug agents in 2008, accusing them of inciting the opposition.
Washington denies the accusations. Both countries have been working, so far with limited success, to restore relations at the ambassadorial level.
The text of Bolivia's reservation says it "reserves the right to allow in its territory: traditional coca leaf chewing; the consumption and use of the coca leaf in its natural state for cultural and medicinal purposes; its use in infusions; and also the cultivation, trade and possession of the coca leaf to the extent necessary for these licit purposes."
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru contributed to this report.