Sun, Jan. 20, 2008
By: Casto Ocando
Venezuela’s controversial President Hugo Chávez has revealed that he
regularly consumes coca — the source of cocaine — raising questions
about the legality of his actions.
Chávez’s comments on coca initially went almost unnoticed, coming amid a
four-hour speech to the National Assembly during which he made
international headlines by calling on other countries to stop branding
two leftist Colombian guerrilla groups as terrorists and instead
recognize them as “armies.”
”I chew coca every day in the morning . . . and look how I am,” he is
seen saying on a video of the speech, as he shows his biceps to the
Chávez, who does not drink alcohol, added that just as Fidel Castro
”sends me Coppelia ice cream and a lot of other things that regularly
reach me from Havana,” Bolivian President Evo Morales “sends me coca
paste . . . I recommend it to you.”
It was not clear what Chávez meant. Indigenous Bolivians and Peruvians
can legally chew coca leaves as a mild stimulant and to kill hunger. But
coca paste is a semi-refined product — between leaves and cocaine —
considered highly addictive and often smoked as basuco or pitillo.
”It is another symptom that [Chávez] has totally lost the concept of
limits,” said Aníbal Romero, a political scientist with the Caracas
Metropolitan University. “It shows Chávez is a man out of control.”
More seriously, Venezuelan and Bolivian analysts said Chávez’s comments
amount to a dangerous endorsement of a substance controlled around the
world, and perhaps even an illegal act by a very public head of state.
”If he is affirming that he consumes coca paste, he is admitting that
he is consuming a substance that is illegal in Bolivia as well as
Venezuela,” said Hernán Maldonado, a Bolivian analyst living in Miami.
”Plus, it’s an accusation that Evo Morales is a narco-trafficker” for
sending him the paste.
Morales is the longtime head of a Bolivian coca-growers’ union and is
known to chew coca in public, even during cabinet meetings, since he
took office. Bolivia limits the coca acreage in an effort to control
supplies of coca leaf that wind up being refined into cocaine.
Most likely, however, it seems Chávez was referring to chewing coca
leaves, a traditional and legal practice among indigenous groups in the
high Andes mountains but illegal in Venezuela, according to experts.
”Venezuela signed the Vienna Convention of 1961, which regulates
everything that has to do with narcotics,” said Mildred Camero, former
president of the government’s main counter-narcotics agency, the
National Council Against the Illicit Use of Drugs. “On the list . . .
the coca leaf was prohibited.”
Although the growing and chewing of coca leaf is legal in Bolivia,
Morales ”should explain the shipments he sends to Chávez,” said Carlos
Sánchez-Berzaín, a Morales critic and former Bolivian interior minister
now living in Miami.
”The [Bolivian] government should declare how it sends the coca, how
much it sends, with what frequency, the weight, in what type of
container, because it is a controlled substance and the government must
be monitored,” Sánchez-Berzaín said.
This is not the first time that the president praised the properties of
coca leaves. During a visit to a communal kitchen in western Caracas in
early 2006, with Uruguayan President Tabaré Vásquez, Chávez suggested
using the kitchen’s ovens to bake bread made from a special coca-based
”We could try that here, as part of that effort to de-Satanize a
product that our indigenous people have been producing for centuries,”
In early 2007, Venezuela signed an agreement to buy 4,000 tons of coca
leaf from Bolivia in what it said was an effort to diminish the supply
available for refining paste and cocaine and launch the manufacture of
food and medicinal products on an industrial scale.
Caracas made the first payment of $500,000, but the project remains
frozen, in large part because of the legal implications of shipping the
leaves across borders.
Although coca leaves have nutritional and medical characteristics, ”the
principal component is an alkaloid, cocaine,” that can be ”harmful”
if it’s made part of a daily diet, Nancy Siles, a biochemist with the
Bolivian College of Biochemistry and Pharmacy, wrote in a a recent report.