It's the Real Thing: Hugo Chávez's Coca

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
has never lacked a sense of theatricality -- that is for sure.
In the midst of
the proceedings Chávez turned to his ally, Bolivian President
Evo Morales, and remarked "You brought me coca, I want the
coca that Evo produces there."

By Nikolas Kozloff - CounterPunch
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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
has never lacked a sense of theatricality -- that is for sure.
He recently shocked his diplomatic counterparts in the middle
of a Latin American summit held in Caracas. In the midst of
the proceedings Chávez turned to his ally, Bolivian President
Evo Morales, and remarked "You brought me coca, I want the
coca that Evo produces there."

Chávez's stimulant of
choice is coffee. A year and a half ago, I saw him speak at
Cooper Union in New York. At one point, he paused in the middle
of his speech to drink a cup of espresso. Chávez, who
is totally hyperactive, is reportedly a caffeine fiend and sleeps
very little. Now, however, the Venezuelan leader's favorite
fix seems to be changing. Before his audience of sympathetic
Latin leaders, Chávez popped a coca leaf into his mouth
while defending use of the plant.


"Capitalism and international mafias have converted (it)
into cocaine, but coca is not cocaine," Chávez remarked.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself a former labor leader
of a coca growers' union, had personally brought the coca leaves
to Caracas for Chávez. In recent years, Chávez
has sought to further his strategic alliance with Bolivia in
an effort to further his socialist agenda and to counteract U.S.
economic and political influence.

"I knew you wouldn't let
me down, my friend, I was running out," Chávez said
as he received the leaves from Morales.

As Chávez chewed the coca, he drew applause from the audience.

Even before the Caracas summit,
Caracas had revealed that he chewed coca "every day in the
morning." The Venezuelan leader said that he received ice
cream and other items from Fidel Castro, but Morales sent him
coca paste.

Coca paste is a highly addictive
substance made from coca leaves that serves as a base for cocaine.
It is sometimes smoked -- not chewed -- by drug users. Apparently
Chávez misspoke and meant instead to say that he chews
coca leaves, which have been used for centuries by indigenous
peoples in the Andean highlands to boost energy and ward off
hunger.

"I
Recommend Coca"

Coca leaf, which was domesticated over 4,000 years ago, is usually
chewed with a bitter wood-ash paste to bring out the stimulant
properties, which are similar to caffeine or nicotine. For
Andean Indians, coca leaf is closely tied to the spiritual world.
Offerings to Pachamama, the Mother Earth, begin in August
to scare away malevolent spirits of the dry season and to encourage
a good harvest. Offerings consist of llama foetuses, sweets
of various colors, coca leaf and other herbs. The yatiri,
or indigenous priest, burns the offerings in a bonfire while
muttering prayers to the achachilas, Gods that inhabit
the mountains.

Chávez has praised the
health benefits of chewing coca and refers to the plant as the
sacred leaf of Bolivia's Aymara Indians. In a speech delivered
to the Venezuelan National Assembly
no less, Chávez brazenly remarked "I recommend it
[coca] to you" (Chávez's admission prompted a Venezuelan
opposition leader to accuse the Venezuelan leader of being a
"drug consumer." Chávez, charged the politician,
ought to submit to a drug test). In his search to legitimize
and rehabilitate coca leaf, Chávez has been joined by
Morales. The Bolivian President says that coca in its natural
state does not harm human health, and that scientific research
has demonstrated that the plant is "healthy." When
drug smugglers change coca into cocaine, Morales says, they change
the plant's chemical composition. While Morales condemns such
practices, he also touts the commercial uses of coca leaf. In
a riff on Chávez's earlier misstatements, Morales said
that one could indeed consume coca in paste form, that is, through
coca toothpaste.

In praising the therapeutic
properties of coca leaf, Morales echoes claims made by the Coca
Research Institute in La Paz. According to the organization,
coca has nutritional and pharmaceutical uses. For example, coca
flour is rich in iron and helps balance blood sugar. Additionally,
coca tea can counter altitude sickness. David Choquehuanca,
Bolivia's foreign minister, claims that coca leaf is so nutritious
that it should be included on school breakfast menus. "Coca
has more calcium than milk," he told the Bolivian newspaper
La Razón. An eight ounce glass of milk contains
300 milligrams of calcium. According to a 1975 study conducted
by a group of Harvard professors, a coca leaf weighing 3.5 ounces
contains 18.9 calories of protein, 45.8 milligrams of iron, 1540
milligrams of calcium and vitamins A, B1, B2, E and C, which
is more than most nuts.

"Before, the coca leaf
was totally satanized, penalized," Morales has said. "But
we respect the doctors and scientists who have begun to industrialize
it." During the colonial period the Spaniards looked upon
coca leaf as a symbol of native people's inferiority, but today
Morales employs coca as a potent political symbol. When speaking
before adoring crowds, he drapes a garland of coca leaves around
his neck and wears a straw hat layered with more coca. Morales
has even appointed Felipe Cáceres, a coca growers' union
leader, as his point man in halting drug trafficking. Those
types of moves play well at home, where the cocalero movement
preaches indigenous ethnic pride as well as anti-globalization.
On the floor of congress, representatives of the cocaleros
frequently deliver speeches in native languages while chewing
coca.

Life
in the Coca Market

Currently under the Morales administration, coca in its natural
state is sold through markets established and controlled by the
government. The regulation forms part of a government plan to
industrialize and export coca to other countries such as Argentina.
Under the initiative, legally established companies, cooperatives,
or organizations may opt to acquire coca, according to the quantity
needed for consumption, from legal markets without any interference
from retailers.

Though Bolivian officials claim
not to possess information about the relative importance of coca
in the Bolivian economy, clearly the leaf plays a vital role
for many. The Adepcoca market in La Paz is the largest coca
market in the country. A constant stream of poor Indians arrives
here, day and night, seven days a week, to weigh and sell coca.
Women dressed in traditional Aymara clothing haul 23-kilo taquis,or sacks of coca leaves, to waiting vans. All the buyers
are registered and the coca they buy is supposed to be used for
chewing or tea. Morales recently inaugurated the first coca
industrialization plant in the town of Chulumani. The plant
will produce and package coca and trimate (herbal tea
made out of anise, chamomile, and coca leaves). In a snub at
Washington, Chávez has even donated $125,000 to the Chulumani
coca industrialization plant.

Chávez
and Morales Speak Out Against the Drug War

Morales claims that the United States seeks to intervene in Latin
American countries by playing up the drug war. Washington's
policy, Morales has charged, is merely "a great imperialist
instrument for geopolitical control." The Bolivian President
argues that the only way to do away with drug trafficking is
to cut off demand. Currently under Bolivian law, 29,600 acres
of coca may be cultivated for traditional use and consumption.
Though Morales is expected to receive $30 million for coca eradication
in Bolivia in 2008, his incendiary rhetoric and toleration of
limited coca cultivation does not go over well in Washington.

To make matters worse, Chávez
has long charged that the United States is destabilizing the
Andean region by funding the drug war and arming the Colombian
military. Colombian violence has in turn spilled across the
Venezuelan border, creating chaos and lawlessness. The Venezuelan
authorities combat drug trafficking, but Chávez has long
since severed any collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA). He has also moved to prohibit U.S. over
flights of Venezuelan airspace to combat drug trafficking and
has railed against aerial fumigation of coca leaf in Colombia.
Washington has hit back, claiming that Venezuela does not do
enough to combat the drug trade. According to U.S. officials,
Venezuela has become a key transshipment point for Colombian
cocaine.

Chávez
Promotes Cultural Independence

Surely, by attacking the drug war Chávez scores points
amongst many in the region who view U.S. militarization as a
menace. But by going even further and promoting coca leaf as
a cultural symbol, Chávez hopes to encourage cultural
nationalism in South America in opposition to the United States.
For years, the Venezuelan leader has railed against the homogeneity
of U.S.-inspired globalization. Chávez denounces shopping
malls and rejects consumerism while promoting Venezuelan art
and music. Under the Law of Social Responsibility, 50 percent
of what DJs play must be Venezuelan music. What's more, under
a cultural law approved in 2004, at least 50 percent of all that
music must be "folkloric." As a result of the new laws,
llanero (rat-a-tat ballads or mournful love songs from
the Plains region) and gaita (lilting music from the city
of Maracaibo) musicians have been doing a thriving business.
Chávez has even founded his own publishing house, El
Perro y La Rana, which publishes books on Marxism. Meanwhile
the government has promoted Ávila TV, a cultural TV station.
Additionally, Chávez has inaugurated a spanking new film
studio, Villa del Cine, designed to encourage the growth of Venezuelan
and Latin American cinema as a counterweight to Hollywood (for
more on Venezuelan film, see my
March 9-11 2007 interview in Counterpunch with Lorenza Almarza
,
Villa del Cine's director.

Encouraging
Latin American Cultural Nationalism

By rehabilitating the coca plant, Chávez also hopes to
foster cultural unity amongst sympathetic regimes throughout
the region. Chávez's ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative
for The Americas), a counterweight to U.S.-sponsored free trade
schemes such as the FTAA (or Free Trade Area of The Americas)
is an initiative which promotes reciprocity, solidarity, and
barter trade amongst left wing Latin American nations such as
Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia. In recent years, Chávez
has sent oil to Cuba. In exchange, Fidel Castro sent health
professionals to Venezuela who attended to millions of poor Venezuelans.

ALBA, however, also has an important cultural component. In
early 2006, Venezuela and Cuba agreed to set up a cultural fund
under the scheme. The two countries will create an ALBA publishing
house designed to showcase the work of prominent intellectuals
and also promote an ALBA record label. Other South American
countries have expressed interest in signing cultural agreements
with Venezuela. Francisco Sesto, the Venezuelan Minister of Popular
Power for Culture, is particularly interested in setting up a
network of "ALBA houses" in Buenos Aires, Quito, and
La Paz. More than mere bookstores, exhibit halls, or movie theaters,
the ALBA houses would spur dialog among intellectuals in the
region and facilitate integration of peoples throughout the hemisphere.

During a recent gathering,
the ministers of culture from Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia
met to discuss their future plans. Abel Prieto, the Cuban minister,
described the countries of the region as locked in a struggle
to preserve their cultural diversity against the forces of globalization.

"The defense of our own
multiple identities and traditions is a priority," Prieto
said. "It was a necessity," he added, "to confront
racism as well as all forms of colonization and exclusion."

Nikolas Kozloff is the author ofHugo
Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S.

(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), andRevolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave Macmillan,
April 2008).