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Chavez Aids Bolivia With Coca Leaf Plan

By Chris Kraul, Chicago Tribune Newspapers

Caracas, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has found a novel way to dispense foreign aid: by promising to underwrite coca production in Bolivia.

Officials confirmed in February 2007 that Venezuela would buy whatever legal products Bolivia can make from coca leaf, as part of that nation's attempt to wean farmers from the cocaine industry.

Chavez's promise could finance the production of some 4,000 tons of coca leaf in Bolivia, Venezuelan officials say. Possible coca-based products include soap, bread, herbal teas, toothpaste, medicines and cooking oils.

No dollar amount for Venezuela's support has been announced. Three factories are under construction in Bolivia with Venezuelan financial aid and Cuban technical support; production could begin this summer.

Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro said the two nations were working on projects to "value and dignify the coca leaf." Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia recently signed the People's Trade Treaty outlining cooperation and about a $1 million investment in research on coca production.

First announced in January by Venezuela's ambassador in Bolivia, Julio Montes, the deal was finalized in Caracas during meetings of the two countries' foreign ministers. The pledge is the latest in a series of foreign aid promises in Latin America as Chavez tries to expand his influence and promote his "Bolivarian Revolution."

Included in Venezuela's foreign aid programs are a promised refinery for Nicaragua, cut-rate fuel for Ecuador and continuing bond purchases from Argentina. Chavez's promise is a big step in Bolivian President Evo Morales' efforts to legitimize the production of coca leaves, a crop Morales once grew.

The announcement came as the United States government is scaling back its anti-drug enforcement funding to Andean nations, including Bolivia and Ecuador. Chavez has long supported Morales' efforts to find commercial markets for coca-based products.

Indigenous communities in Colombia and Peru, which claim the leaf is sacred, have attempted to promote commercial, non-cocaine uses of coca in soft drinks, cookies and anti-arthritic ointments. Botanists have extolled the nutrients that the leaf contains.

But such projects have been opposed by the U.S. government, which sees the export of any coca product as a violation of the Vienna Convention, an international accord under which signatories agree the coca leaf is a dangerous substance that should be banned.

Morales in December 2006 announced he was expanding legal production of coca in Bolivia to 50,000 acres from 30,000 acres by 2010. The United States protested, saying that Bolivia needed only a fraction of that acreage to supply domestic needs.

The coca deal will do nothing to lessen the hostility of the Bush administration toward the Chavez regime. That hostility was evident at a February congressional hearing when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said democracy and human rights were under attack in Venezuela.

"I do believe that the president of Venezuela is really, really destroying his own country, economically, politically," Rice told lawmakers. But the Venezuelan and Bolivian governments made it clear U.S. objections will not affect their plans.

Appearing in February before reporters with Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro said the two nations were working on projects to "value and dignify the coca leaf." Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia recently signed the People's Trade Treaty outlining cooperation and about a $1 million investment in research on coca production.

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