Wednesday, March 21, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s ruling party demanded that Coca-Cola drop the “coca” from its name to “dignify” the “bioenergetic” leaf that provides the main ingredient in cocaine.

“If we are not permitted to commercialize coca, then why should Coca-Cola be allowed to do it?” said Margarita Teran, president of the Coca Committee, which is part of a nationwide convention to write a new constitution. She said her committee has sent letters telling the soft-drink manufacturer to change its name.

Coca-Cola declined, suggesting that Coke, not Bolivia, is the real thing.

“We need to say that Coca-Cola as a company is worth dozens of times more than all of Bolivia,” the company said in a statement read on a Santa Cruz television station. Coca-Cola contains a flavored essence of the coca leaf, but not cocaine, which was eliminated from the formula many years ago. (The cola comes from the kola nut.)

The coca campaign is a key issue for the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, which seeks to add the coca leaf to the national seal at the center of the nation’s tricolor flag.

“The state recognizes that the coca plant in all its varieties as a natural, economic, renewable, strategic and bioenergetic resource,” according to a statement released last week by Miss Teran’s Coca Committee. It calls the coca leaf an “axis of Andean Amazonic cultures” and a “sacred symbol.”

“The commission proposes that the laurel and olive branches, which currently adorn that national seal, should be changed for branches of the sacred and ancestral coca leaf plant to symbolize popular culture, resistance and social cohesion.”

Neither proposal is likely to be popular in Washington, which has cut millions of dollars in counternarcotics aid to Bolivia since leftist President Evo Morales, the leader of MAS, came to power on a promise to legalize coca growing.

On a recent trip to South America, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided not to take a miniature guitar she received as a gift from Mr. Morales back to the United States because it was lacquered with coca leaves.

MAS Sen. Antonio Peredo said that current symbols contained in the seal — olive and laurel in the talons of a condor — are a legacy of Bolivia’s colonial past, while “the coca leaf corresponds to Bolivia and all that was the Tahuantinsuyo,” referring to the ancient Inca empire.

Ms. Teran of the Coca Committee agreed.

“The coca leaf should be declared a national patrimony and incorporated into our national seal because it’s sacred and should not be used as a mere commercial label,” she said.

“Coca is not poison, and it does not harm anyone in Bolivia,” she said. “Making it part of our national coat of arms symbolizes the state’s commitment to take it off the international list of toxic substances.”

Since taking office last January, Mr. Morales has legalized coca plantations and pushed for international acceptance of the leaf as a medicinal substance. Coca has been used by Andean Indians over centuries as a chewable stimulant and in tea.

The U.S. has opposed industrial ventures financed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Mr. Morales, to process coca leaves into a variety of food and medicine products, including flour and anesthesia. U.S. officials fear that the excess production could go to illegal cocaine manufacturing.

“I love Coca-Cola,” U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg said at a press conference last week. “I hope that the proposal is reconsidered.”

Opposition lawmakers dismiss the campaign as a publicity effort.

“The government wants to create an international controversy over coca as part of an effort to institutionalize the leaf,” says constitutional assembly Delegate Sergio Medinaceli of the opposition Podemos party. “They want the entire country to defend their position.”

Another opposition delegate, Wilber Vaca, said that the issue is being used as a “smoke screen [to] distract from more serious proposals that could erode our liberties.”

Other constitutional changes proposed by MAS include restrictions on private property and freedom of expression.

Mr. Morales says that he plans to call new elections after the constitutional assembly concludes its work in August.

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