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