January 26, 2008 / 7:17 PM / 11 years ago

Venezuela's Chavez swaps coffee for coca in speech

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez switched from coffee to another stimulant during a speech on Saturday — he popped a coca leaf into his mouth and chewed it while defending the use of the plant.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez talks to the media during a conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, January 25, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Bolivian President Evo Morales, an advocate of the Andean nation’s indigenous coca growers, brought Chavez coca leaves while in Caracas for a summit of Latin American leaders allied with Chavez.

“I knew you wouldn’t let me down, my friend, I was running out,” Chavez said as he received the leaves from Morales during the televised summit. He broke one in half and chewed it, drawing applause.

“Capitalism and international mafias have converted (it) into cocaine, but coca is not cocaine,” he said.

Opposition leaders this week said the leftist Chavez, famous for speaking for hours on end, should take a drug test after he told legislators he chews coca to keep his energy level up.

The anti-U.S. leader said this month that every morning he chews “coca paste”, a highly addictive substance made from coca leaves that serves as a base for cocaine and is sometimes smoked — not chewed — by drug users.

Chavez appeared to have misspoken, meaning instead to say he chews coca leaves.

Indigenous groups in the Andean highlands have for centuries chewed coca leaves to boost energy and ward off hunger.

Before winning the presidency in 2005, Morales helped organize Bolivia’s coca farmers and openly opposed U.S.-backed coca eradication efforts.

The U.S. drug czar last week accused Chavez of turning Venezuela into a haven for drugs trafficked from neighbouring Colombia, the world’s top producer of cocaine.

Chavez said the charge was a politically motivated smear campaign against him.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Xavier Briand

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