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U.S. policy on Bolivia questioned

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Source http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/world/3603559.html



As Evo Morales takes S. American nation's reins today, analysts push warmer ties



South America Bureau


LA PAZ, BOLIVIA - During a recent whirlwind tour around the globe, Evo Morales, who will be sworn in today as Bolivia's president, received a hero's welcome from Cuba's Fidel Castro as well as millions in aid and an honorary sword from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.



But Morales did not visit the United States, the No. 1 financial aid donor and trading partner of Bolivia.


The leftist coca grower, who won by a landslide last month, lacked a U.S. visa. What's more, Bush administration officials did not invite him because they resented his anti-American rhetoric and thought he was in cahoots with drug traffickers.


With South America increasingly leaning toward the left, Bolivia seems to stand at a crossroads. While Morales contemplates whether to adopt U.S.-friendly policies or gravitate toward hard-line leftists such as Chavez and Castro, some analysts question the Bush administration's arm's-length approach.


Rather than issuing a ringing endorsement of the 46-year-old Aymara Indian, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared recently that relations between the countries would depend on the behavior of the Morales government. There are plenty of financial carrots that may persuade Morales to cooperate with Washington.


"The reflex is to see Evo as a threat, but that could become self-fulfilling," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S. think tank. "Instead of standing back, the U.S. should try to engage and find things on which to cooperate."



Fighting poverty


Morales, whose country has vast natural gas reserves, has lashed out against globalization, labeled the U.S.-funded drug war in Bolivia a farce and called President Bush a terrorist. He once promised to become Washington's worst nightmare. His victory — in which he polled almost 54 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate field and trounced his nearest rival by 25 percentage points — has been widely interpreted here as a mandate for sweeping economic and political changes in South America's poorest nation.


"We have an obligation to change the economic model," Morales said Saturday after he received the blessing of Indian holy men at a ceremony in an ancient temple in Tiwanaku, 40 miles west of La Paz. "The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few provides no solution for the poor."


Despite two decades of free-market economic policies, an estimated 64 percent of the country's 9 million people continue to live in poverty.


The U.S. provided $157 million in aid last year, about 17 percent of the $900 million that Bolivia received from the international community. Recently, Bolivia applied for a $598 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Account, an aid program set up by Bush in 2002. The country must pursue what Washington deems as sound economic policies to qualify.


"The Bolivian state has no sovereignty because it is dependent on international aid," Morales said last week. Analysts say Morales' statements often seem calculated to please the militants among his supporters, who range from impoverished Indians to middle-class professionals. Indeed, many experts here describe Morales, a former two-term congressman, as a man willing to listen and learn.


"Most presidents try to impose their own agenda," said Juan Ignacio Siles, a former Bolivian foreign minister. "But Evo recognizes his limits and has the capacity to adapt to new situations."



Coca controversy


Faced with the reality of governing, Morales has softened his tone on a variety of issues, including the drug war and economic policy.


During his campaign, he berated a U.S.-backed program to eradicate coca crops, which provide the main ingredient of cocaine as well as the leaves chewed by local Indians. He later suggested that the police and army eradication teams could continue to operate if they carry out their duties peacefully.


Bolivia is the source of 16 percent of the world's cocaine supply, and Washington has made the continuation of the eradication program a key demand for normal relations.


Morales, who made a name for himself in the 1990s as the leader of a coca-growers union, insists that his government will focus its anti-narcotics efforts on drug traffickers rather than on the farmers.


"Evo says 'zero cocaine,' and I think the U.S. should take him seriously," said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy organization. "It's better for Bolivians to feel that they have their own policy, one that is not being imposed by the United States."



Free-trade deal possible


On other issues, Morales has staked out moderate positions.


A key demand of his more radical supporters is that his government expel foreign companies working in Bolivia's vital oil and natural gas sectors. Though Morales wants to increase taxes on these firms and renegotiate many of their contracts, he has promised not to expropriate their holdings. Morales has also said he would be willing to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the U.S. if the deal proved beneficial to most Bolivians.


U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee, who is married to a Bolivian and served here in the Peace Corps in the 1960s, recently invited Morales to his palatial residence in La Paz. Though Morales later described the meeting as "tense," such an encounter just a few years ago would have been unimaginable. Last week, Greenlee offered an optimistic assessment about U.S.-Bolivian relations: "We have turned the page. We are in a new era."


Experts say that most of the Bolivians who voted for Morales want clean government, more jobs and a sense that their country is no longer in the hands of the small elite that long ruled.


Still, Morales must also deal with his more radical followers who staged nationwide protests that helped oust two presidents in the past three years. Some activists warn that Morales will suffer the same fate unless he expels the foreign oil and gas firms and moves Bolivia firmly to the left.


"If Evo fails to nationalize the energy companies, there will be conflict," predicted Carlos Rojas, who helped organize street uprisings that forced out President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003 and President Carlos Mesa in June 2005.



Chavez tries to woo Bolivia


Also nudging Morales to the left are Castro and Chavez.


After his election, Morales' first stop on his world tour was Havana, where Castro offered thousands of scholarships for Bolivian students. Meanwhile, Chavez, who often clashes with Washington, has been furiously courting Morales.


When the two met in Caracas, Venezuela, this month, Chavez promised $30 million for social projects and a year's supply of diesel fuel in exchange for Bolivian agricultural products.


He also promised to open branches of Venezuela's state-run oil company and development bank in Bolivia and talked about forming an "axis of good" with Morales and other leftist presidents in the region.


Analysts say Morales is aware that aid from Venezuela and other countries pales in comparison with U.S. assistance. The Bolivian, they note, lacks the oil wealth that provides Chavez a degree of independence from Washington.


But the Bush administration has asked Congress to trim its assistance to Bolivia by 5 percent rather than increase it, said Adam Isacson, a Latin America expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington.


He added that Bolivia stands to lose millions more in U.S. aid if the State Department blacklists the country as an uncooperative drug-war ally.


"Look at it from Evo Morales' perspective: You've got Cuba and Venezuela offering more and the U.S offering less," Isacson said.


"If one were to design a policy deliberately aimed at pushing Morales away from the center-left and into Hugo Chavez's warm embrace, it wouldn't look much different from this one."

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