- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

From combined dispatches

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia

Fresh from talks with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Bolivia’s president-elect this week will visit another leftist Latin American leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Evo Morales, who takes office Jan. 22 as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, plans to spend six hours in Caracas today before starting a tour of European countries, South Africa, China and Brazil, said his spokesman Alex Contreras.

Some U.S. officials have expressed concern about the growing alliance among Mr. Morales, Mr. Castro and Mr. Chavez — all critics of Washington.

Mr. Contreras scoffed at such concerns.

Mr. Morales’ visits “do not aim at an axis of evil; rather, to an axis of good,” he said.

Mr. Contreras said Mr. Morales’ decision to start his international travels by visiting the two anti-American leaders does not mean he is closed to relations with other governments. The president-elect would have gone to Washington if he had been invited, the spokesman said.

“The president-elect is prepared to talk, as long as diplomatic conditions are different from what they have been before,” the spokesman said.

If that doesn’t happen, “relations with the United States can deteriorate badly,” he said.

Mr. Morales, a coca farmer who opposes U.S.-led coca eradication in Bolivia, returned Saturday from Cuba in his first trip abroad after his landslide election victory Dec. 18.

In Cuba, Mr. Morales said he would not allow himself to be pressured by Washington while in power. “I never had good relations with the United States, but rather with the American people,” he said.

He said his trip to Europe, scheduled to start in Spain, will be an opportunity to “spark a fundamental dialogue directed at seeking solutions to the grave social and economic problems in my country.”

Mr. Morales, 46, told reporters last week that he would not be asking Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero how to repair the “damage” of hundreds of years of colonization, but would be urging joint efforts to alleviate social and economic woes.

“It’s important to understand the economic situation of my country, and so there will be a message of how, together, the countries of Latin America, Europe and other continents can seek democratic solutions through dialogue to resolve the grave problem of the majority of peoples in all countries, not just Latin America,” Mr. Morales said.

He took a harsher line toward Washington.

The United States “constantly accuses me of everything — being a drug trafficker, a coca-leaf mafia man and a terrorist.”

“There will not be zero coca, but there will be zero cocaine,” said Mr. Morales.

Coca is the raw material from which cocaine is processed, but for centuries it also has been used in traditional medicine in Bolivia.

Mr. Morales wants to end the U.S.-sponsored coca-eradication program that he says has failed to curb drug trafficking in Bolivia.

The White House has taken a wait-and-see approach toward Mr. Morales.

“The behavior of the new government will determine the course of our relationship. It’s important that the new government govern in a democratic way,” spokesman Scott McClellan said in Washington last month.

Asked about any potential for a U.S.-backed coup in La Paz, Mr. Morales said: “If they inject some money in there from above, from outside, some military staff might try it, but they will fail.

“Before they think about a coup, the U.S. government had better think about withdrawing their troops from Iraq and closing their military bases in South America.”

Mr. Morales, who plans to nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas industry, said: “The Bolivian people had chosen to exercise the right of ownership over their natural resources.

“Investors have the right to recoup their investments and a right to earnings, but under equal principles — and the state, the people … the owners of these natural resources should also benefit.

“It’s sad, but some businesses and transnational groups have not respected Bolivia’s laws, they haven’t paid taxes, they’re thieves. We will be radical with such groups. If they do not respect Bolivia’s laws, they will have to leave Bolivia.”

Alluding to leftward shifts in Latin America, Mr. Castro, 79, said: “It appears the [political] map is changing, and we need to be reflective, to watch closely and stay informed.”

Mr. Morales promised to join Mr. Castro’s “anti-imperialist struggle” during his first foreign trip as president-elect. Despite efforts by the Bush administration to isolate Cuba, Mr. Castro enjoys close ties with Mr. Chavez and Mr. Morales.

Mr. Morales has invited Mr. Castro to his Jan. 22 inauguration.

Mr. Morales won the presidential election with 54 percent of the vote, the strongest mandate of any Bolivian president since democracy was restored in 1982.

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