Monday, December 19, 2005

Leftist Morales Claims Victory in Bolivia

By FIONA SMITH
The Associated Press
Monday, December 19, 2005; 5:40 PM

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia -- The Socialist firebrand who claimed victory in Bolivia's presidential race repeated his promise to end a U.S.-backed crusade against coca plants, but said Monday his government would respect private property. Unofficial results showed Evo Morales _ himself a coca farmer _ with a decisive lead over seven opponents that would make him the first Indian president in the 180-year history of independent Bolivia and solidify a continental leftward shift.

Morales was congratulated by Venezuela's self-proclaimed revolutionary leader Hugo Chavez and by the more centrist Socialist president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos. No early call came from the United States, and Morales said, "neither was I expecting one." A State Department spokeswoman, Jan Edmondson, later said in Washington that "while official results have not yet been released, we congratulate Evo Morales on his apparent victory."

She said the U.S. has had good relations with Bolivia in the past and "we're prepared to work to build the same relationship with the next government." Apparently trying to reassure foreign investors, Morales said his government would respect private property even as it asserts state ownership over Bolivia's natural gas reserves.

Multinational companies would be paid to help in exploration and to develop the industry, he said. Morales has been an irritant for Washington for years while he has built close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro and Chavez. A State Department report earlier this year referred to him as an "illegal-coca agitator."

On Monday, Morales said a governing Movement Toward Socialism party "is not only going to respect, but is going to protect private property," although "vacant, unproductive land" would be turned over to farmers with no land or very little. His comments echoed policies already in place in Venezuela to grant the poor title to land owned by big companies or individuals that has been deemed unproductive by the government.

The site of the news conference _ the offices of the coca growers union where he rose to political prominence _ showed that his apparent victory did not mellow his crusade against U.S. coca-eradication efforts. "We are betting on an effective fight against narcotrafficking because neither cocaine nor drug trafficking is part of Bolivian culture," Morales said.

He has not said how he will stop illegal drug exports, complaining instead that "the fight against drug trafficking has been a pretext for the U.S. government to install military bases ... and these policies will be revised." Morales also defended coca _ the raw material for cocaine _ as an integral part of Bolivian culture.

Complete official returns were not expected before Tuesday, but three independent vote counts sponsored by Bolivian news media showed Morales at or above the clear majority he would need to win outright. If he falls short, Bolivia's congress would decide the winner, but it would be under enormous pressure to choose the clear front-runner.

No candidate in decades has won by such a landslide, marking a turning point in a country traditionally governed by the non-Indian elite. Like most Bolivians, Morales grew up in extreme poverty; only two of his six brothers and sisters survived childhood in Bolivia's bleak Andean highlands.

"The people have dealt him a very strong mandate," said Former Foreign Minister Gustavo Fernandez. He said congressional confirmation would be a "mere formality" if Morales falls short of a straight majority.

Fernandez considers the election a dramatic triumph for South America's leftists: After years of strikes, protests and barricade-building, the people are finally in the position to demand more power from entrenched ruling classes. "This isn't just about Bolivia; this is happening across Latin America," Fernandez said.

"There is now a wave of popular movements sweeping across the region, not only in Bolivia but also in Uruguay, Brazil and other countries." ___ Associated Press Writer Bill Cormier in La Paz contributed to this report.


December 19, 2005

New Bolivian Leader Poses Challenge to US Policy

By REUTERS
Filed at 7:05 p.m. ET

SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - The election of Evo Morales as Bolivia's president poses new challenges to the Bush administration in Latin America, where its unpopularity is growing and the left is on the ascendancy.

U.S. officials have tried to demonize Evo Morales, a former leader of coca farmers and the first Indian elected Bolivian president, since he came to prominence. He himself has called his Movement Toward Socialism a ``nightmare'' for Washington. But Morales shows signs he could be a pragmatic leader and the United States should steer away from confrontation, regional analysts said.

``It is important to recognize that he clearly has a mandate from the Bolivian people. People knew what they were voting for,'' analyst Jess Vogt of the Washington Office on Latin America said in a telephone interview from Bolivia. Morales' victory is the latest for the left in Latin American, where many voters have become disillusioned with free-market economic policies that have done little to improve the lot of the poor.

Anti-U.S. sentiment is rising, evident from the graffiti on walls of cities like Sao Paulo in Brazil, or the tear-gas filled street protests that greeted U.S. President George W. Bush at a hemispheric summit in Argentina last month. The trend has thrown up leaders like Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former factory worker who follows a conservative economic policy and has a respectful relationship with Washington, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has engaged in a shrill shouting match with Bush administration officials as he tries to counter U.S. influence and spread his own social revolution.

A LULA OR A CHAVEZ?

Who will Morales follow? His praise for Chavez has alarmed the White House, which fears a leftist bloc gathered around Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro, who has also lauded the new Bolivian leader. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington would look to the behavior of the Bolivian government to determine the course of U.S.-Bolivian relations.

``The issue for us is will the new Bolivian government govern democratically? Are they open to cooperation that, in economic terms, will undoubtedly help the Bolivian people, because Bolivia cannot be isolated from the international economy?'' Rice said in a CNN interview.

Morales opposes Washington in the two key areas of its Latin American policy -- the creation of an Americas-wide free trade zone and the war on drugs. He has vowed to roll back a U.S.-funded eradication program of coca, cocaine's main ingredient, but also used by Indians in traditional medicine. Bolivia is the third-biggest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

Morales has also pledged to nationalize the natural gas industry -- Bolivia has South America's second-largest reserves -- and use the wealth to lift the poor. Still, said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington: ``I don't think there's going to be an early confrontation, because Morales is a practical man.''

'THEY ARE NOT FOOLS'

``Will the administration be wise enough to pull back from its hostile attitude? What is needed is a sober accounting of what is needed, instead of turning to the CIA,'' Birns said. Increased aid, particularly for a crop substitution program, could help on the drug issue, analysts said. ``It is clear this government is not going to turn Bolivia into a narco-state, which is what Washington keeps on insisting,'' Vogt said.

On the eve of the election, Morales said he hoped for a proper relationship with Washington. On Monday, he said gas rights for foreign companies would end, but Bolivia still wanted to work with them as partners.

``Morales is not out there demanding expropriations. They are not fools. They are taking a pragmatic approach,'' Vogt said. The United States could follow the approach of Bolivia's giant neighbor, Brazil, which will play an important role in stabilizing the country, analysts said. Brazilian state energy company Petrobras has a major stake in Bolivian gas and could lose some of it.

Yet Lula has praised Morales and his ambitions for his people. ``Of course we want to guard our interests, we don't want to throw money out the window, but it is more important to take care of political harmony and development,'' Brazilian foreign affairs advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia told O Globo newspaper. How the United States handles Bolivia could set the scene for its reaction to elections across the region next year that could bring more leftist leaders.

``There is a changing tide in Latin America and the United States needs to get out of the Cold War paradigm. The policies they've been pursuing for decades just don't fly anymore,'' Vogt said.

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