- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — The influence of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro on Bolivia’s left has become a central issue in the country’s fractious election battle, pitting the Indian-led Movement to Socialism (MAS) against various conservative candidates.

The elections, scheduled for December, were called in June when violent protests organized by MAS and other leftist groups paralyzed the country and forced the resignation of then-President Carlos Mesa.

Beginning his presidential bid last month, center-right front-runner Jorge Quiroga accused MAS leader Evo Morales of being an “agent for Venezuela’s brazen interference in the internal affairs of Bolivia.”

Mr. Quiroga charged that Mr. Chavez and Mr. Castro had a “regional plan” to “destabilize” South America.

Mr. Morales lashed back by accusing Mr. Quiroga of “following orders from [President] Bush.”

Charges of Venezuelan interference are based in part on a meeting last month in Caracas between Mr. Morales and Mr. Chavez. The talks also were attended by Felipe Quispe, the extremist head of the Pachakutec Indigenous Movement (MIP).

While MAS and MIP cooperated in the sometimes-violent protests that have ousted two Bolivian presidents since 2003, Mr. Quispe and Mr. Morales are rivals for the support of Indian constituencies in the high Andes. Yet, shortly after their return from Venezuela, Mr. Morales named a one-time close aide to Mr. Quispe, Alvaro Garcia Linera, as his running mate.

In accepting the nomination, Mr. Garcia vowed to campaign for full nationalization of Bolivia’s oil and gas resources and for a new constitution favored by MAS.

While he recently has become known as a socialist opinion leader and television pundit, Mr. Garcia faces legal charges involving past activity with the terrorist Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK).

One of the leading conservative candidates, businessman Samuel Doria Medina, once was kidnapped by the EGTK, which obtained a $5 million ransom negotiated through the London firm Control Risks.

Some of the money is thought to have gone to finance leftist parties in Bolivia, as well as the 1996 armed takeover of the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

“Perhaps we are all suffering from Stockholm syndrome,” said political commentator Juan Carlos Fernandez Bowles, who used the psychiatric term describing a love-hate bond that develops between hostages and kidnappers to portray Bolivia’s current predicament.

“We are terrified by the prospect of a Chavez- and Castro-supported leftist victory but are failing to take the necessary steps to resist it,” he said.

Although polls show a majority of Bolivians favor moderate candidates, the right and center vote could be split at least four ways. The recently resigned conservative president of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, surprised many when he threw his hat into the already crowded political ring last week, and more are expected to follow.

Mr. Quiroga has tried to mobilize the middle-class vote by warning that MAS would bring in an authoritarian government. But Interim President Eduardo Rodriguez, who depends on MAS to maintain social peace, has been reluctant to accuse the party of ties to Cuba or Venezuela.

Finance Minister Luis Carlos Jemio was obliged to resign early this month after saying during a visit to Washington that he had heard speculation that Mr. Morales had financial links with the Cuban and Venezuelan leaders.

But intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Venezuela is moving millions of dollars through accounts in Citibank to finance Bolivian leftist leaders.

They also said that Cuban entertainers, teachers and sports instructors were being sent to Bolivia to help consolidate support for MAS.

A Cuban official struck a female Bolivian reporter in front of television cameras when she persistently asked him why 400 Cuban scholarships being granted to Bolivians had gone only to members of MAS.

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