- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

SHINAHOTA, Bolivia — President Evo Morales, flanked by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, visited Bolivia’s coca-growing highlands yesterday to launch a campaign to extend his presidency.

Mr. Morales and Mr. Chavez were showered with rose petals as they arrived on an open truck with an impressive security display by combat-clad army troops and red-shirted Venezuelan and Cuban bodyguards.

The three stood on the balcony of the town hall of Shinahota, a town about 370 miles southeast of the capital, La Paz, in the tropical Chapare region.

Mr. Chavez called on Bolivians to learn from his experience in confronting “imperialist conspiracies” and finding a “strategic formula” to re-establish society through a constitutional assembly.

Mr. Chavez extended his rule by changing Venezuela’s constitution through public referendums since he was elected president in 1999.

Yesterday’s rally was staged to begin a campaign to elect a constitutional assembly that would rewrite Bolivia’s constitution.

Leaders of Bolivia’s ruling party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), want a new constitution that would allow Mr. Morales to be re-elected to an unlimited number of terms.

The joint address to a crowd of nearly 100,000 peasant farmers comes at a time of growing internal opposition to nationalization and land-reform programs in Bolivia.

Mr. Morales nationalized the natural gas industry earlier this month with the backing of Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Morales and Mr. Chavez yesterday announced plans to invest $1 million to “industrialize” coca and investigate ways in which the leaf could be used for commercial purposes.

“Before there used to be a scene of conflict and confrontation as a result of the coca zero policy of neo-liberal governments,” Mr. Morales said, referring to U.S. coca eradication policy. “Now it is a scene of happiness that the leaves and the army are with the people.”

Coca is used to make cocaine.

Giving the afternoon’s keynote speech, Mr. Chavez continued the harsh rhetoric against the United States that has become his trademark.

“We have to save humanity from American imperialism,” he said. “We have to tear down American imperialism.”

Mr. Chavez warned that a “conspiracy had begun” to overthrow Mr. Morales.

“I lived through imperialist conspiracies, economic sabotage and coups. We have time and time again defeated them,” he said urging Bolivians to do the same.

Recalling a 2002 coup attempt against his government in Venezuela, Mr. Chavez said the effort failed because the “people took to the streets.”

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