Mon, Jan 28, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Hugo Chavez preaches health benefits of coca leaves


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accepted a handful of coca leaves from his Bolivian ally Evo Morales and chewed them during a summit meeting on Saturday, saying "coca isn't cocaine."

"You know the strength that coca gives," Chavez said. "I've really grown used to it every day in the morning."

The socialist leader joined the Bolivian president in defending the leaf, chewed by Andean Indians for centuries, while condemning its use in making cocaine.

US officials have tried to stamp out or restrict coca cultivation.

Chavez accused Washington of trying to use the issue of drug trafficking to discredit his government for political reasons, noting that White House drug czar John Walters has accused him of facilitating the flow of Colombian cocaine through Venezuela.

Chavez called that "a serious thing," but smiled as he thanked Morales for recently sending coca to him and Cuban President Fidel Castro. Chavez asked for more.

"You didn't bring me the coca leaf I asked for? Where are the coca leaves?" Chavez asked Morales, a former coca farmer. "I want the leaf that Evo produces there, the pure, pure coca leaf."

Standing up from a table, Morales walked to Chavez and opened a drawstring bag.

"Oh, friend, I knew you wouldn't fail me! They were running out," Chavez exclaimed, accepting a handful of leaves and putting some in his mouth.

"The sacred leaf of the Inca, the Aymara," Chavez said. "Thank you, brother ... As Evo has said -- and I repeat it, coca isn't cocaine."

Morales, who rose to power as head of a coca growers' union, told leaders at the regional summit that the small, green leaf is healthy and beneficial, noting its use as an ingredient in toothpaste, as well as for coca tea. He said Coca-Cola has long used a cocaine-free coca extract as part of its secret recipe -- something the US-based drink maker does not discuss.

Morales, backing a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca," has stepped up anti-drug enforcement while attempting to control coca crops through cooperative eradication programs.

His initiative has largely avoided the violence of past US-backed campaigns, in which troops clashed with farmers, but US officials argue it has failed to significantly reduce Bolivia's coca crop.

Venezuela has provided financial help to Bolivia to build plants to produce coca tea and flour. Those plants are now under construction.

Some of Chavez's opponents question his affinity for coca, some even suggesting that he should undergo a drug test -- an idea he dismissed as silly.

"A group of Venezuelans from an opposition party have now made an accusation against me for consuming coca, because they say I'm a drug user and have asked for a toxicological exam," Chavez said.

"They're lackeys of the [US] empire," he said. "They try to ridicule us, but they're the ones who end up making fools of themselves."

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