LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) – Indian leader Evo Morales said he would reject Washington’s policy of eradicating much of Bolivia’s coca crop if he is elected president and pledged he would work to legalize the leaf used to make cocaine.

Morales, a front-runner in this Andean nation’s Dec. 4 election, is an Aymara Indian who led protests that helped oust President Carlos Mesa in June and led to the calling of the December vote.

He rose to power 10 years ago as the leader of the coca growers of the Chapare region, where U.S.-backed eradication efforts are focused.

During a campaign stop in the city of Sucre late Tuesday, Morales said the U.S. government’s policies have the sole objective of “eliminating coca” and “tormenting the cocaleros,” the people who grow coca. Morales said he would oppose coca eradication efforts if president, but added that he would still fight cocaine production.

“They’re won’t be zero coca, but there will by zero drug trafficking,” Morales said.

The U.S. Embassy in Bolivia would not immediately comment on Morales’ position.

Currently, the Bolivian government permits the cultivation of 29,600 acres of coca leaf for traditional uses. But recent United Nations estimates say more than twice that amount is actually grown. In 2004 the Bolivian government forcibly eradicated 20,800 acres with help from the U.S. government.

Bolivians, who have grown the coca leaf for thousands of years, drink it as tea, chew the leaf to stave off hunger while working, and use it in Indian religious ceremonies.

U.S. and Bolivian government officials say the coca that is produced above the legal limit of 29,600 acres is destined for cocaine production, while Morales and his supporters argue that the government is underestimating the demand for legal domestic consumption.

Bolivia’s December election was called by President Eduardo Rodriguez, who is serving as a caretaker president, following the resignation of President Carlos Mesa amid protests against the government’s economic policies.

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