- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia — Bolivians are polarized between presidential candidates offering sharply different visions today in an election that has become a referendum on U.S. anti-drug efforts in a nation where violent left-wing protests toppled leaders in 2003 and 2005.

The tight race pits Evo Morales, a leftist coca farmer who would become Bolivia’s first Indian president if elected, against Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, a conservative former president who wants to continue free-market policies and the war on growing coca, which is used to make cocaine.

Mr. Morales, 46, who held a slight lead in opinion polls, promised to be Washington’s “nightmare” and to reverse U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca fields.

He counts Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez among his friends, and a victory for him would follow wins by leftists in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Uruguay.

The Aymara Indian street activist accused the U.S. Embassy and Bolivia’s political establishment of mounting a “dirty war” against him.

“Happily, in Bolivia, the people are rebellious in facing up to the empire,” Mr. Morales said in an Associated Press interview and referring to the United States. “Despite their accusations, if they want to talk to this ‘drug trafficker,’ with this ‘narcoterrorist,’ I don’t have any problem. We’re always open to dialogue and will always seek diplomacy with any country.”

Although a fierce critic of free-market policies that he blames for Bolivia’s widespread poverty, Mr. Morales moderated his tone as election day approached and assured the business community that he would protect property rights and fight drug trafficking.

“Morales is an untried political leader. He’s certainly someone who can command the street,” said Riordan Roett, head of the Latin American studies department at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “Now, can he make the transition from an agitator to an executive?”

Mr. Quiroga suggested his rival was making vague promises that he wouldn’t deliver.

“Don’t be fooled,” Mr. Quiroga, 45, a free-market supporter, said Thursday in the wealthy city of Santa Cruz, his power base. “With your support, we are going to show that the future of Bolivia is good and prosperous.”

Mr. Quiroga, who served as president in 2001-02 after then-President Hugo Banzer fell ill, said he would sell Bolivia’s vast natural gas reserves at higher prices and improve infrastructure, education and health care in this impoverished nation of 8.8 million residents.

The six other candidates, a wild card in the contest, were expected to win enough votes to deny anyone a majority. That result would push the selection of the president to the newly elected congress, which would choose in mid-January between the two top finishers.

The congress is often pressured, but is not required, to choose the candidate who receives the most votes. In the five presidential elections since Bolivia returned to democratic rule in 1985, the congress has passed over the first-place candidate twice.

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