December 19, 2005

New Bolivian leader poses challenge to US policy

By Angus MacSwan

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 country's first Indian leader,
since he first 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' election victory is the latest for the Latin
American left as people 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 Brazil's Sao Paulo or the tear-gas filled
street protests that greeted U.S. President George W. Bush when
he attended 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 officials as
he tries to counter U.S. influence and spread his own social

Who will Morales follow? His praise for Chavez has alarmed
the Bush administration, which fears a leftist bloc gathered
around Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro, who has also
lauded the new Bolivian leader.


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 up 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."

"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 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 the United States. 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

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.

"It's important that Bolivia has a stable democracy,"
Brazilian foreign affairs advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia told O
Globo newspaper. "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."

Ultimately how the United States handles Bolivia could set
the scene for how its reacts to a string of elections across
the region next year which 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