- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

Russia is expanding its presence in left-leaning Latin American nations, with an offer of aid to Bolivia to replace drug-fighting money cut off by the Bush administration - the latest expansion of Moscow’s ties with a region beset by declining U.S. influence.

Iran and China are also actively courting several nations in the region. The efforts typically target nations that have turned leftward in democratic elections, with Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela among the most prominent.

“The Embassy of Russia has officially requested that a government delegation come to Moscow to discuss cooperation in anti-drug efforts,” Felipe Caceres, Bolivia’s drug czar, told The Washington Times in a telephone interview Thursday.

“There are two kinds of support we are talking about. First is support for officials and personnel, and the other is the possible use of high-altitude helicopters.”

Tensions between Bolivia and the United States neared the breaking point this month, when dozens of people were killed in a battle between loyalists and opponents of the government of leftist President Evo Morales for control of natural gas exports.

Bolivia and the U.S. have expelled each other’s ambassadors, and the U.S. has begun evacuating nonessential personnel from its embassy in La Paz amid bloody battles that pitted Morales supporters - mostly Indians from the nation’s eastern highlands - against Bolivians of European descent in the energy-rich east.

As the battles raged, the Bush administration “decertified” Bolivia as a nation cooperating in the U.S.-led war on drugs, putting up to $30 million in U.S. aid in jeopardy.

Mr. Caceres said proposed cooperation with Moscow was not intended as a slight to the U.S. and that Bolivia welcomes help “from any state that does not put conditions on us.”

In recent years, Russia has stepped up its outreach to Latin America, as has China and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Efforts typically include foreign aid, joint ventures to develop energy resources, technology transfers and weapons sales - developments that defy centuries of U.S. domination of the Western Hemisphere under what is known as the Monroe Doctrine.

The Russian quest for influence follows elections of leftist leaders with strong anti-American credentials in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The U.S. denies its influences in Latin America are on the decline.

“We believe that, the behavior of leaders of a couple of these countries notwithstanding, that overall the cooperation in the hemisphere is becoming greater between the United States and other countries in the hemisphere, and that overall the trend lines are positive,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.

This week, a top Russian delegation visited Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to discuss technology transfers, energy joint ventures and diplomatic gestures that analysts say are designed to irritate Washington.

On Monday, Russian Vice President Igor Ivanovich Sechin arrived in a hurricane-battered Cuba where Moscow had sent humanitarian aid, according to Cuba’s State News Agency.

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