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January 20, 2008 - Miami Herald (FL)

Chavez Says He Chews Coca Daily

Analysts Said Chavez's Comments Before National Assembly Amounted To a Dangerous Endorsement and Might Be An Admission Of An Illegal Act

By Casto Ocando, El Nuevo Herald

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Venezuela's controversial President Hugo Chavez has revealed that he regularly consumes coca -- the source of cocaine -- raising questions about the legality of his actions.

Chavez'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 audience.

Chavez, 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 Chavez 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 [Chavez] has totally lost the concept of limits," said Anibal Romero, a political scientist with the Caracas Metropolitan University. "It shows Chavez is a man out of control."

More seriously, Venezuelan and Bolivian analysts said Chavez'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 Hernan 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 Chavez 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 Chavez," said Carlos Sanchez-Berzain, 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," Sanchez-Berzain 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 Tabare Vasquez, Chavez suggested using the kitchen's ovens to bake bread made from a special coca-based flour.

"We could try that here, as part of that effort to de-Satanize a product that our indigenous people have been producing for centuries," he said.

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 recent report.

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