The New Politics of Coca

Ruby Rohrlich (rohrlich@GWIS2.CIRC.GWU.EDU)
Fri, 12 May 1995 17:06:18 -0400

This is the title of a long article by Andrew Weil in The New Yorker of
May l5, "Letter from the Andes," which I think is extremely important to

". . . .The Empresa Nacional de la Coca (ENACO) is a government
agency in charge of all legal cultivation, distribution and sale of coca
leaves in Peru. A social psychologist by training, Baldomero Caceres is a
consultant at ENACO. . . . He is a passionate defender of coca, a plant
that has a bad reputation because it is the source of cocaine. He is also
better acquainted with the scholarly literature on coca than anyone else I
know.. . . He was for a time academic vice-rector of the National
University in Cuzco, and it was there that he was introduced to the custom
of coca chewing -- not by Indians but by a visiting scholar from Warsaw
who was an expert on Quechua language and culture. He says, 'A foreigner
had to make me aware of this natural treasure in my own country.'
Thereafter, his interest in the sacred leaf of the Incas developed
steadily; he also began to experience beneficial health effects from its
" He handed me a photocopied page of a book in Spanish,
saying, 'It is the first documented account of the use of coca by New
World Indians.' What Baldo gave me was an excerpt from the journal that
Amerigo Vespucci kept during his second voyage to America, in l499,
describing an encounter off the Caribbean coast of Venezuela: 'We found
there people . . . . who had their cheeks full of a green herb that they
chewed constantly like beasts so that they could barely speak, and each
one carried about his neck two gourds, one full of that herb, and the
other of a white powder that looked like pulverized plaster, and from
time to time, they dipped a stick into the powder after wetting it in the
mouth, thenput the stick in the mouth, an end in each cheek, in order to
apply powder to the herb that they chewed.'
" The green herb was certainly Erythroxylum novogranatense, of the
variety now known as Colombian coca, and the white powder was almost
certainly lime made from roasted seashells, one of several alkalis that
Indians use with the leaves in order to make the chewing of them more
enjoyable. Alkalinity facilitates absorption of cocaine, the stimulating
alkaloid that is coca's most important constituent.
". . .. To this day Kogi and Ika Indians of the Sierra Nevada de
Santa Marta, the snow-covered mountains that rise just inland from
Colombia's north coast, use this same variety in just the same way. The
men of these tribes equate dedication to coca chewing with dedication to
spirituality and higher pursuits. Using a different species of
Erythroxylum and different alkalis, millions of Indians of the Andes of
Peru and Bolivia still chew coca every day; they also employ it in heir
folk medicine as the' gran remedia' for ailments as diverse as toothache
and altitude sickness, and incorporate it centrally into all teir
cultural, magical and spiritual practices.
"The word 'coca' derives from an Aymara word that means simply
'tree.' Prior to the Conquest, Indians used various names for the
several varieties of cultivated Erythroxylum. The Spanish took the name
'coca' from the southern reaches of the Incan empire and brought it into
use throughout their domain. The Incas regarded it as a gift from the gods
intended to improve human life; its leaves are sacred. They have
personified the spirit of the plant as Mama Coca, a divine and beneficent
aspect of nature.
"Although many mestizo peoples in the region extending from Colombia
to northern Argentina have taken up the Indian habit of coca chewing, and
many more use the leaf occasionally as a folk remedy, the dominant
culture -- that is, the European culture -- has always disputed the
native contention that coca is beneficial. Over the centuries, many
experts have argued that coqueros (coca users) are in fact indulging in
a harmful, addictive vice and rationalizing their indulgence with
unfounded claims of imagined benefits
> "In recent years the production and distribution of coca have, of
course, become matters of great international concern because of a
distinctly modern phenomenon: the epidemic use of isolated cocaine. From
the same Caribbean coast where Vespucci first encountered coca, enormous
quantities of refined cocaine hydrochloride now leave for Miami and other
ports in North America and Europe. In both North and South America,
fewer affluent people are putting this "powder cocaine" in their noses
than did so a decade ago, but an enormous surge in the use of crack
cocaine, a purer, smokable form of the drug, has occurred in the
underclass, and especially among disadvantaged youth in inner cities. The
news is full of stories about crack houses, crack babies, crack addicts,
and crack wars. These patterns of use cause as much alarm and as many
demands for repressive action in South America as they do in the North.
It was sensational publicity about crack cocaine that escalated the war
on drugs, and it is fear of crack cocaine that continues to paralyze
efforts to reform drug policy.
"One frequent response of authorities on both continents is to blame
the coca plant afor all the troubles with cocaine. If there were no
coca, there would be no cocaine, no toxicomanos smoking unrefined cocaine
in the slums of Lima, no nightmare of crack in Middle America. Coca is
now seen not just as a bestial habit of Indians but as the source of the
epidemic that is destroying many cities and their youth. An obvious
solution is to eradicate coca from the earth. The United Nations has
endorsed this policy, and Washington has tried to put it into effect.
"But coca is still the sacred plant of large populations of South
American Indians, and those people, and increasingly, their government
passionately resent the efforts of descendanats of conquistadores to
eradicate it. The bitter intercultural dissension has become more
heated in recent years, as Andean Indians have found a collective voice
and a new generation of Western experts,trained to recognize and respect
the values of other cultures, has come to their defense. In October,
l992, on the occasion of the Columbus Quincentenary, thousands of angry
Indians marched on Cuzco to call for an end to 'five hundred years of
European domination and oppression.' High on their list of demands was
cessation of attempts by the United States and the United Nations to do
away with coca. A tract that circulated throughout
Cuzco during the march
was headed in both Spanish and Quechua,'The Sacred Coca Lives: 500 years
of Indigenous and Popular REsistance.' It began with these words:
'Coca is an Andean product, whose deomestication and use date
back 4000 to 6000 years.
'Cocaine is a European invention of l50 years ago.
'Both products stimulate the cultural values of their respective
societies. Coca enhances community, sociability, and the communal
spirit. Cocaine is the maximum expression of so-called 'Western'
individualism; it isolates the individual not only from other people but
from all reality.
"So the lines of battles have been drawn, and now a new political
alignment is forming in the coca- producing countries of South America.
Joining the Indians in their demand that coca be reassessed is an
unlikely assortment of intellectuals, economists, politicians, and
scientists who believe that coca should be developed for legitimate
uses. These latter-day defenders of coca would like to see the repeal of
international laws that currently block commerce in coca products; if
more legal markets existed for coca, they say, fewer leaves would be
processed into cocaine, the black market would begin to shrink, and licit
economies would thrive. In Bolivia the government has been committed to
trying to change world opinion about coca,, as a necessary first step in
making exports possible.
"Few people outside the growing regions of South America know much
about the shrub that is at the center of the storm. . . . .
Archaeological evidence of coca chewing includes small ceramic containers
that were used for lime in the Valdivia culture of southwestern Ecuador
and that date back to about 2l00 B.C.E. A ceramic figurine dated
between l600 and l500 B.C.E. from this same ciulture clearly depicts the
bulging cheek of a coca chewer. . . . In the light of the evidence, it
seems likely that coca chewing -- and possibly coca cultivation -- was
established in Ecuador by 2500 B.C.E., making coca one of the first
plants domesticated by human beings in the New World.
"It would be impossible to catalogue all the ways that coca
permeates the culture, medicine and religion of Andean Infdians, so
central is it to life in this whole region. . . . Indians exchange and
use coca at all major functions: births, weddings, funerals, dedications
of new dwellings, drawings up of contracts, healing ceremonies, magic
rites. Chewing coca gives pleasure but, as many commentators point out,
that pleasure is as much social as pharmacological.
"not only is coca fully integrated into Andean society but it is
also an integral part of the region's ecosystem -- a stubborn and
dismaying fact impeding those who would like to make it disappear. As a
cultivated plant, coca is nearly ideal. It has few predators and pests,
in part because of the cocaine content of the leaves; indeed, that may
have evolved originally as a defense against predators. The plant will
grow in soils too poor and on slopes too steep to support other crops,
will live for 40 years or more, and will tolerate many harvests a year.
"No one knows exaactly how much coca Peru and Bolivia produce or what
percentage of it goes into the black market, but total production
continues to increase despite all efforts to stop it. Of the hundreds of
thousands of leaves harvested annually in Pero, ENACO is lucky if it
controls 5%. The rest are all diverted. The diversion is to the jungle
kitchens from which' pasta basica' (unrefined cocaine)is shipped off by
river to Columbia for processing into powder cocaine destined for points
north. Bolivia does not have a government coca agency to monitor legal
production, but the situation there is the same.
"The least-known variety of coca in South America,' E. coca var. ipadu'
is found in Amazonia. In parts of Colombia, Peru and Brazil numerous tri
bes of the uppeer Amazon use it under the name 'ipadu'. Between l973 and
l98l I made a number of visits to one of the ipadu-using atribes -- the
Cubeos of theRio Cuduyari, in the Vaupes territory of southeastern
Colombia, near the border with Brazil. Thesmall village I chose to
stayin had l0 huts and a large communal house. It was a two-day canoe
trip or a half day's motorboat trip upriver from a scruffy frontier town
called Mita, the territorial capital. One afternoon shortly after I
arrived onmy first visit, the chief of the tribe took me to see one of
his coca fields. We walked for about half an hour trough dense jungle,
then came to a large cleared area, planted with tapioca root, pineapples,
chilies and coca. The coca plants were about 3 feet tall and looked as
if they were being haarvest continually. Their leaves were a glossy
green and muchlarger and thicker than those of the common coca I knew
from theAndes. The chief and I filled a large basket with leaves and
carried them back to thevillage.
"another distinctive feature of this varietyis its low cocaine
content -- less than half that of the other varieties. In order to
compensate for thelow potency and tough texture of the leaves, Amazonian
Indians have developed a unique method of using their coca, which I
learned about as soon as the chiefand I got back to te village without
harvest. His wife emptied the basket into a large earthenware pan over a
woodfire. Using one hand and a paddle woven of reeds, she tossed the
leaves constantly until they were toasted crisp and bright green. The
chief loaded the toasted leaves intoa tall mortar made of a hollowed-out
hardwood log and began to pound them with a heavy wooden pestle, until he
had reduced them to a very fine powder. Meanwhile his wife took bunches
of huge leaves froma common jungle tree and burned them to ashes over the
fire, to provide the necessary alkalinity. The chief added handfuls of
ashes to the mortar and kept pounding. Then hesifted themixture through
a fine cloth bag, shaking it into a can. The final product, the coca,
was a gray-green dust with the texture of flour. Thechief gave me a gourd
containing this prepared ipadu, and a cardboard scoop,indicating that I
should put a heaping spoonfl in my mouth. The trick to using ipadu is
tomoisten the powderinto a coherent gob and tuckit into the cheek before
you take a deep breath. Once I had mastered the technique, I found I
could relax and concetrate on the state and the effect. The stuff had a
smoky, toasted-green-vegetable flavor. After a few minues, a pleasant,
tingling-numbing sensation pervaded my mouth, and the usual sensations of
chewing coca followed: a warm, satisfying feeling in the stomach and a
subtle sensation of energy coursing through the body, accompanied by a
brightening of mood. Soon we were all taking turns pounding leaves with
the pestle.
"During my stays in the village I often helped the Indians in their
daily task of preparing coca - it's hard work - and I alwaysused it with
them. It seemed to combine the functions in our society of coffee and
chewing gum, and I saw it used in only 2 situations. In the mornings, if
any ipadu remained from the night before, men would consume it before
going out to do the day's work, such as chopping down trees or fishing.
ButmostlyI saw coca used as a social ritual in the afternoons and
evenings, when work was done and the people of the villaage came together
to prepare cocaand talk. Sometimes they would gatheer in the communal
house to play music on reed flutes, dance and drink chicha, a low-alcohol
beer made from yuca or the starchyfruit of the opeach palm. The effects
of coca on the Cubeos seemed to me to be as differentfrom the effects of
crack-cocaine on users in our society as day from night.
"In the past, only adult men used coca; it was tab oo for women to
have anycontact with the plant. At the time ofmy first visit that taboo
was breaking down, and over the years I saw more and morewomen of the
tribe using coca along with the men, especially in the evenings and at
tahe fiestas. Children and adolescents never used it, n or did they
display any curiosity about it.
"I never saw any abuse of coca among these people. They were not
addicted to it. Sometimes men of the tribe would haveout as rubber-tree
trappers in distant parts of the forest for 6 months or a year at a
time. During these periods, they would be without coca. Theymissed it,
because they liked it, they said, but experienced no difficulty in being
away from it. I saw no physical or mental problems associated with its
use, and the Cubeos, like all Indian coqueros I've talked to on
thesubject, believed that coca impoved their health, and gave them longer
lives. The oldest man of the village, in his 70s, was also the heaviest
consumer. He could paddle a canoe faster than I could, and was in
better physical and mental condition than many 70-year-olds I see in the
U.S. But in he short space of 8 years I watched this little community
fall apart as a result of contact with the cocaine trade. Colombian
mafiosi began to arrive in theVaupes in the mid-70s, with schemes of
recruiting Indians to cultivate coca for the black market. Plantations
in te rain forest would be difficult to spot and easy to service by
river, and might reduce the dependence of the Colombian refineries on
coca produced in distant Peru and Bolivia. When thesemen with rolls of
cash showed up in their speedboats, the Indians were dazzled by dreams of
becoming richovernight and finally being able to buy the goods they
coveted in the Mitu store. The Cub eos becamedependent on guns, bullets,
flashlights, and ouoard motors; theyliked metalcooking pots, cloth and
transistor radios, but they'd had nothing to sell for cash except their
own labor. Here was a way of breaking into the cash economy of Mitu.
"Of course itdidn't work out as they expected. They rushed off to
plant as much coca as they could, and neglected their food crops and, for
the first time, experienced shortages. The outsiders who began showing
up in their territory were not nice people and certainly did not have the
best interests of theCubeos at heart. They always came in speedboats,
which made it possible for Indians to get rides to Mitu in an hour
instead of two days, and they provided enough cash for Indians tobuy
distilled alcohol there -- which I had never seen in the village.
"On my last visit to the Rio Cuduyari the whole settlement was in
disarray, with the communal hgouseuntended and food scarce. On one
occasion, when the Indians tried to hold a fiesta to celebrate my return,
cane whiskey appeared instead of chicha and coca, and the fiesta was over
in less than an hour, withmany of themen lying drunk on the ground. When
I left the next day, in a motorboat, all I could think of was that my
society, with its ever growing demand for cocaine, was responsible for
the decline of this community that had so recently been an inspiring
examkople of how people can maintain a stable societywhile using
psychoactive plants.
"Scientists in Europe took little interest in coca until l859,
when an Italian neurologist, Paolo Mantegazza, wrote an essay on the
hygienic and medicinal virtues of the leaves. He said 'Iwould prefer a
life of l0 years with coca to one of a l00,000 without it,' and his essay
became very influential. Within a year of its publication, a German
chemist isolatedcocaine from coca and in the spirit of the new science of
pharmacology, released it as the 'active principle' of Erythroxylum. As
a result, much scientific interest shiftedfrom the plant to te pure
alkaloid. In the l860s medical doctors began to experiment with both
coca and cocaine for the treatment of various ailments. A numbeer of
coca tonics became avaiable, Vin Tonique Mariani a la Coca du Peerou, a
red Bordeaux wine combined with an extract of select coca leaves,
which was manufactured in Paris and dispensed by prescription. It
became the most popular prescribed remedy in the world and was used
regularly by celebrities (including Thomas Edison, H.G. Wells, Alexandre
Dumas fils, and Pope Leo X111, who awarded Angelo Marian, its inventor, a
Vatican gold medal and always carried a hip flask of the elixir). In the
U.S. Parke, Davis made a less glamorous standardized tincture of
Erythroxylum and in l880 in the Detroit Therapeutic Gazette, a Dr. W.H.
Bentley reported his successful use of this product tocure patients of
addiction toopium and morophine. In l883 a German doctor surreptitiously
put cocaine in thedrinking water ofBavarian soldiers before they went on
maneuvers, and reported that their endurance increased as a result.
It was at this time that Freud was inspired by Manategazza's
essay to experiment with Erythroxylum, particularly in cases of cardiac
ailments and nervous exhaustion, especially in withdrawal from
morophine. In July, l984, he published the first of 3 papers he wrote on
thesubject, 'Uber Coca,' but he never worked with coca. He began to take
pure cocaine hydrochloride bymouth, and found it produced an exhilaration
he liked verymuch. Baldomero Caceres deplores Freud's equiting of coca
with cocaine, and in his subsequent recocmmendation, on the basis of
Bentley's work with oral ticture of coca, that a friend of his take
injections of cocaine to treat his morphine habit. Baldo says, 'This
terrible mistake of Freud's was the origin of the scientific
establishment's failure to distinguish coca from cocaine, an error that
has had grave consequences for Andean civilization, Peru, and the world.'
" In September of l884 a colleague of Freud demonstrated that a cocaine
solution dropped into the eye allowed painless removal of cataracts.
This opened the era of local anesthesia, a revolutionary advance. But as
the l9th century ended it became obvious that cocaine was perfectly
capable of claiming victims of its own, and the medical profession soon
distanced itself from use of the drug except as a local anesthetic.
"Thus the centuries-old European prejudice against South Amereican
Indians' chewing of coca leaves found scientific support in the
medicalprofession's disastrous experience with purified cocaine. Caceres
singles out the greeat German posychiatrist Emil Kraepelin as the man who
codified prejudice and confusion into scientific theory. Kraepelin
pioneered the classification of mental disorders in l883, and in the 4th
edition of the text, published in l89l he added "cocainism" to a short
list of "chronic intoxication," whose consequences in PLeru are as well
known as those of opium smokers in China. Baldo said that 'others took
up the theme and embellished it over the next few decades -- men who
often had no direct experience of Andean clture and looked to
German psychiatry as the source of truth.
"Carlos Gutierrez-Noriega, was the most famous brain researcher in
Peru. After receiving his medical degree he did graduate work in
pharmacology at sev eral North American universities and then returned to
Peeru to become chief of opharmacology at the Institute of Hygiene in
Lima. He founded the 'Revista de Medicina Experimental' and became
the president of the Sociedad de Neuro-Psiquiatria. He was also the
most influential foe of coca in South America, amd his writinags turned
the entire Andean Indian population into a nation enslaved by 'cocaism.'
"During the l940s Gutierrez-Noriega conducted experimental studies
of coca and cocaine in both animals and human beings, his human subjects
being Indian coqueros who happened to be incarceratedin Lima's central
prison or committed to asylums. The Peruvian government warmly endorsed
his publications which compiled the pathological changes resulting from
habitual use of coca, equating cocaism with misery, thneorizing that
malnutrition was inextricably linked to the addiction, and that Indians
turned to coca as a substitute for food, suffering loss of appetite as a
result of their habits. Fiinally he identified coca chewing as'the
factor of greatest importance opposed to the improvement of the Indian's
health and social condition. In the 40s he was considered the world's
foremost expert on the effects of coca.
"Fernando Cabieses is considered the most knowledgeable living
Peruvian expert on the effects of coca and cocaine. His latest book, 'La
Coca: Dillema Tragico?' is a concise summary of what we do and do not
know about both substances. He is a medical doctor, and as the
father of neurosurgery in Peru, he is the director of the Neurological
Institute of Lima Also as the president of the National Institute of
Traditional Medicine under the Ministry of Public Health, he researches
medicinal plants, including coca which, he maintains, is 'the single most
important natural remedy within our borders.' 'The observation that got me
into my
present experimental work with coca,' he said, 'is that some of the most
impressive leaders of Quechua communities are also the most dedicated
users of the leaf -- charismatic men, who by any standards are healthy,
intelligent, productive. I see no psychopathology there.'
"He said, 'The amount of cocaine in leaves of average strength
is small -- about one-half of one percent by weight or less. The average
coquero consumes about 30 grams of leaves a day, or a little more than
an ounce. Thirty grams of coca would contain about l50 milligrams of
cocaine. Certainly coqueros absorb some of this, but there is a
tremendous difference between a dose of l00 or l50 milligrams of powder
cocaine swallowed, sniffed or injected and that same dose taken over the
course of a day in the traditional manner of Indians. The difference
lies in the realm of pharmacokinetics.'
"Pharmacokinetics is the study of the distribution and fate of drugs
within the organism: how they enter the body, move through it, interact
with their target organs, and are finally eliminated. Pharmacologists now
know that how a drug is administered and the rate of its increase of
concentration in the blood and in the target organs are critical
determinants of its effects -- more critical than the size of the dose.
Small doses of drugs introduced directly and rapidly into the blood and
brain may produce much more dramatic and toxic effects than large doses
introduced indirectly and slowly. Of the many ways that human beings
have found to put cocaine into their brains, holding a quid of coca in the
mouth is, pharmacokinetically, the safest, while inhaling the vapors of
freebase or crack cocaine is the most dangerous. Coca and cocaine act
like two different pharmacological agents.
"Most of Gutierrez-Noriega's ideas have been disproved by later
investigators, most notably byscientific-minded anthropologists. For
example, there has been a greaat deal of inquiry into the eatinghaits of
Indians in relation to coca. Instead of replacing food with leaves,
Indians use food and leaves together; their preference is tofollow a good
meal with a chew to improve digestion. Analyses of coca leaves also show
them to contain significant amounts of some nutarients, including more
iron and calcium than any of the food crops grown in the Andes, as well
as B vitamins; regular consumption of the leaves may supplement the
traditional Andean diet in important ways. One Peruvian scientist has
told me that the low incidence of osteoporosis among AndeanIndians is due,
in part, to coca use, since the Andean diet is otherwise very low in
calcium. Since the time of Gutierrez-Noriega, anthropologists and
ethnobotanists have compiled a large body of data supporting many of the
Indians' claims of the utility of coca in their lives. Nonetheless, it
is the psychiatric view of Andean coca use that has determined
governmental policies in our time
"Two years ago Baldomero Caceres and Fernando Cabieses teamed up to
write a memoandum for ENACO explaining how it was that in l947 Peru came
to ask the United Nations to appoint a commission of inquiry to look at
the effects of coca chewing. The work of Gutierrez-Noriega was the
immediate stimulus for this request, and the resulting inquiry led
directly to international accords on suppression of coca. In l949 a
Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf was formed, with an American
bsinessman, Howard B. Fonda, as its chairman. Fonda had little
or no knowledge of ethnobotany, pharmacokinetics, or Andean culture. He
was an executive with the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical comopany and a
member of the American Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. On
arriving in Lima in September, l949 he gave an interview to the leading
newspaper, El Comercio, before beginning his work, in which he said:
'We believe that the daily, inveterate use of coca leaves by chewing . . .
not only is thoroughly noxious and therefore detrimental, but also is the
cause of racial degeneration in many centers of population, and of the
decadence that visibly shows in numerous Indians -- and even in some
mestizos -- in certain zones of Peru and Bolivia. Our studies will
confirm the certainty of our assertions and we hope we can present a
rational plan of action . . . to attain the asolute and sure abolition of
this pernicious habit.' .
'"The Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf used the term'cocaaism'
repeatedly, systematically ignored bibliographic references that even then
spoke of coca's beneficial propeerties, and fully endorsed all the
conclusions of Gutierrez-Noriega. It delivered its final report to the
United Nations in June, l950. Two years later, the U.N. took the oficial
position that coca chewing was a form of drug addiction. A decade later,
it put coca on Schedule One, a list of the most dangerous and highly
restricted substances, which appeared in an international treaty known as
the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of l96l. Almost all members of
the U.N., including Peru and Bolivia, have signed the treaty. It
prohibited international commerce in the leaves (except for shipments
destined for flavoring Coca-Cola) and envisioned total eradication of
coca in South America within 25 years. The U.S. drug-enforcement
establishment lobbied enthusiastically for its passage.
"Three decades later, many Peruvians and Bolivians bitterly regret
that their countries are signatories to the accord, because they no longer
subscribe to what they have to come see as a prejudicial European view of
coca chewing and they want verey much to be able to develop coca as a
marketable resource. The change is recent. Through the l960s and 70s
many attempts were made to limit coca production, encourage Indians to
substitute other crops and destroy coca fields with herbicides
(usually supplied by Washington). The main effect of the burning
and poisoning of coca fields has been to engender terrible resentment
aainst the U.S. on the part of campesinos. Indians who have switched to
other cash crops, whether coffee, soybeans or peanuts, have invariably
been wiped out financially. Some of these policies continue in effect,
but their day is ending.
"Today, in both PeruandBolivia, the new politics of coca is ev
ident. Fernando Cabieses sees three positions on the issue in his
country. 'The first is the old view of Gutierrez-Noriega that was frozen
into international policy,' he told me. 'Obviously, this position is
going out of fashion today, both because we have much better scientific
information about the leaf and because actions taken from it have been
disastrous failures. The second position, and the one that is becoming
very fashionable, is that of the defenders of coca, who see it as a good
thing, a valuable natural resource that our country should develop
through industrialization and aggressive marketing. I hold a third
position. It is that coca is a potent symbol of a whole culture, equal to
coffee and tobacco for North Americans. To eradicate it would be
tantamount to committing cultural genocide. Its use within the
indigenous culture is simply not a problem, since it produces more benefit
than harm, but I do not defend its use outside that culture, and I am not
in favor of turning coca into candies, wines and toothpastes for the
international market.'
"Fernando went on to explain why he does not endorse international
expansion: 'I'm concerned that if I defend the use of coca outside the
indigenous culture, then I am also seen as defending the traffickers and
the illegal trade in cocaine, and I don't want to do that. You know,
there is now an organization of growers, and they say that 200,000
families depend on coca for their livelihood. They are always trying to
involve me, but I don't want to get mixed up with it..'
"He was referring to a union of Andean coca growers that held its
first meeting in March, l99l, in La Paz. One of the supporters of this
movement is a forceful leftist economist, Hugo Cabieses (Fernando's
nephew), who was one of the leaders of Fundacion Andina, an organization
that seeks to improve the social and economic dontiions of Andean
peoples, bothIndians and mestizos, from Columbia to Chile. Hugo's
involvement in the issue represent a significant shift, because the
Latin-American left has traditionally opposed the use of drugs, whether
in plant or chemical form, as counte-revolutionary. Fundacion Andina has
published detailed analyses of the economic benefits that it claims would
accrue to the Andean region if coca should be fully legalized and
marketed throughout the world, and Hugo has participated in conferences
of legal experts who have concluded that legalizing coca products would
siphon energy away from the illegal traffic in cocaine. Legaliziing the
export of coca products'could be our salvation' one Peruvian government
official told me excitedly. He showed me a report on the spectacular
worldwide sales of red ginseng from South Korea and told me he was sure
that the sacred leaf of the Incas would offer stiff competition.
'So far, the President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, has made few
public statements on the future of coca and given little indication of
his feelings about the issue. Yet the Ministry of Public Health has
authorized ENACO to study possi ble ways of developing a legal industry
in coca products,and ENACO, with the help of Baldomero Caceres and
others, has tentatively begun producing videos, brochures, and books
to help change public opinion. It is also planning to develop a
high-quality standardized extract of coca that could be incorporated into
commercial products, and there is a quiet movement of lawyers,
businessmen, and coca experts who are making plans in the hope that
exports will soon be allowed.
"Bolivia is much less timid and has a stronger tradition of
integrating its European and Indian cultures. In La Paz, coca is sold
openly, as are a number of products made from it, inclding coca tea (the
national beverage), syrups, jam, chewing gum, and toothpastes. Indian
customs are more widely accepted by the general populace than they are in
Peru. Many Bolivian students and intellectuals use coca, not just as tea
but also as a chew. And Bolivia has never had a psychiatric
establishment that was swayed by European ways of thinking about
coqueros. In fact, Jaime Paz Zamora, the President of Bolivia from l989
to l993, contemplated setting up a center for investigating coca,
including its therapeutic effects. On the basis of my reading of the
scientific literature and of my own experiences with coca, I believe that
the leaf should be studied for possible use as a remedy for stomach and
intestinal problems, as a treatment for acute motion sickness, and as a
rapid-acting depressant, among other uses. It may also be a useful
treatment for drug addictiion. A Bolivian psychiatrist has announced
that he has cured people addicted to cocaine by weaning them off pasta
basica, using preparations of coca that are less and less
pharmacokinetically potent; a Peruvian researcher has reported similaar
"Paz Zamora was the chief architect of a 'coca diplomacy' that has
been widely reported in the international press, much to the annoyance of
Washington. His campaign to change the way the world views coca began in
April, l992, when, for its cltural exposition at Expo '92 in Seville,
Bolivia shipped coca leaves to Spain, intending to serve cups of the
national beverage to visitors to its pavilion. But Spanish customs
agents, complying with the provisions of the Single Convention on
Narcotic Drugs, impounded the shipment. A wave of national outrage swept
through Bolivia, causing such a stir that Queen Sofia of Spain had to make
an official visit to La Paz in May to apologize -- and drink coca tea on
Bolivian television. Following that incident, Paz Zamora started speaking
out about the virtues of coca, insisting that people in other countries
must learn to distinguish coca from cocaine. He even attended the l992
meeting of the World Health Organization in Geneva, to ask for
investigations of the medicinal and nutritional uses of coca.
In June of l993, in La Paz I asked the President if he felt
that he was making progress, and he replied, 'Little by litle, we're
making headway. But we are working to counteract years of prejudice and
misinformation..' Perhaps one of the most pressing issues for North
Americans regaarding cocaz diplomacy is whether or not it is possible to
defend and promote coca without seeming to defend the illicit drug
trade. Although Paz Zamora himself is now in disgrace -- because of ties
between members of his administration and cocaz traffickers -- hefelt
that that was no poblem for the country. 'We will continue tofight all
illegal ddrug trafficking,' he said. 'We recognize that there is excess
production of coca, far above legitimate needs, and we will continue to
try to reduce it in any way we can. But we will also continue our
efforts to educate the world about the great differences between coca and
cocaine, about correct uses of the leaves, and about their potential as a
unique resource. And we are committed to the legal industrualization and
commercialization of coca products.'
"The new president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, seemed for
a time to continue the coca policy of his predecessor. At the beginning
of last July, hemet with President Fujimori towork out an accord on joint
economic development. Pointl9 of theDeclaration of Ilo calls for the
creation of a high-level binational commission which, in the words of one
newspaper, would 'elaborate and carryout a joint strategy of reevaluation
of coca with the principal objective of removing this national esource
from Schedule One of the Single Convention of l96l..' Baldomero Caceres
points out 'We don't need any more data. . . It's very clear that the
present classification was made on the basis of distorted information.'
Even so, Hugo Cabieses is hoping to organize a major conference to gather
scientific data that would support the removal of coca from Schedule One,
since Washington still opposes any easing of restrictions on coca
production or use, and it is highly unlikely that any change in the
treaty will come about without American spport. Indeed, President Sanchez
de Lozada, under intense pressure from Washington to do something in the
Chapare region about ever=expanding production, most of which is going to
the black market, has halted Boliivia's coca diplomacy and provoked a
noisy crisis with the campesinos, who say coca is their livelihood and
see moves to prohibit its production as thinly disguised efforts to
destroy their way of life.
"In September Sanchez de Lozada convened a national debate in La Paz
on the problem of coca and cocaine, which was attended by representatives
of industry, labor, the press, the armed forces, and the Church. The
result was a l0-point accord that affirmed the government's strong
position against the illegal traffic in cocaine and against excessive
production of coca, and also noted the desirabilit of continuing the
international campaign to decriminalize coca. The debate was upstaged by
the arrival in La Paz of 3000 membes of theAndean Council of Coca
Producers, who had marched for three weeks, from the hot lowlands of the
Chapare to the highAndes, to propose any attempt to restrict their
production of the sacred leaf.
"Although this position is supported by many Bolivians, Sanchez de
Lozada, in a TV interview in November, startled the nation by announcing a
policy of zero tolerance (Opcion Cero) toward coca growers in
the Chapare. "Nobody chews coca in the Chapare, and pretty much all it is
used foris to make cocaine'" he said. His opponents saw him as kowtowing
to Washington and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Since then
Sanchez de Lozada has taken an increasingly hard line on coca and the
growers union.
" . . . . . The Bolivian Government is moving further and further
away from coca diplomacy. In mid-April a meeting of the Andean Council was
held at Copacabana, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. The Bolivian
Navy raided it, jailed the council's leaders, and expelled Hugo Cabieses
from Bolivia. The Sanchez de Lozada government declared martial law in
response to labor agitation throughnout the country, and is denying that
it has singled out the growers union for special treatment.
"Bolivia does not seem big enough or Pere brave enough to
defyWashington, nor is there reason to think that the United Naations
will react favorably to increasing pressure from citizens of those
countries to liberate cocafrom the present strict control. I cannot
predict what might happen next. What is clear is that our civilization's
failure to understand the Sacred Leaf ofSouth American Indians, how to
respect it and use it wisely, has cost us dearly."
The sender of this report, Ruby Rohrlich, wants the members of this
list to take note of the role of anthropologists in this matter.