Tuesday, December 20, 2005

For Bolivian Victor, A Powerful Mandate

Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales (C) of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party is mobbed by supporters inside the coca growers' headquarters, east of La Paz, December 18, 2005. (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)

Washington Post -- The sweeping if unofficial victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia's presidential election Sunday has made the former coca farmer and grass-roots activist the nation's strongest elected leader since the end of the last military dictatorship in 1982 and has given him an unprecedented opportunity to transform the impoverished Andean country.

The question, say both Bolivian and U.S. observers, is whether the socialist candidate will use that mandate to follow through on pledges for radical economic and political change -- pledges that won him support among indigenous and poor voters -- or whether he can demonstrate enough pragmatism to reassure foreign governments and investors, whose support he needs for economic development.

Morales, 46, is a fiery politician and an Aymara Indian who electrified Bolivia's poor but struck fear into the business elite and irritated officials in Washington by opposing U.S. anti-drug programs and spouting anti-imperialist rhetoric. Whichever path he chooses, his victory stands to resonate far beyond the small, landlocked nation with a history of military coups and wobbly civilian governments.

"Morales faces a very difficult balancing act," said Michael Shifter, an analyst with Inter-American Dialog, a nonprofit institute in Washington. "There is a lot of rage and resentment in Bolivia, and as a candidate he has capitalized on that. But now, in order to govern successfully and keep the country economically viable, he has to reach out to all sectors and show signs of moderation, while convincing his supporters he hasn't sold them out."

As Morales joins a growing list of elected Latin American presidents generally described as leftist or populist, he has two basic models from which to choose. One is that of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has gleefully defied the Bush administration, formed a warm alliance with Cuba's Fidel Castro and cracked down on domestic opponents in the name of social change. The other is that of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who has developed disciplined fiscal policies, left democratic institutions intact and avoided alienating the United States, all while forwarding broad social programs to help the poor.

"The old threat in Latin America was that of military coups. The new threat is that of authoritarian democracies -- leaders who get elected and then use the state to repress opponents, push through social change and stay in power," said Bernard Aronson, an international consultant in Washington and a former State Department official. "That is what Chavez is doing, and what Lula is not doing," he said. "The big question is, which way will Evo Morales go?"

Morales defeated pro-business candidate Jorge Quiroga, a former president who conceded the election late Sunday after unofficial returns showed Morales with 45 percent of the vote. Officially he needed more than 50 percent to win, and the ultimate decision still rests with Congress, but Quiroga's concession appeared to cement the results.

Until now, Morales has cultivated an image that is far closer to Chavez than Lula. He has promised to nationalize Bolivia's largely untapped natural gas reserves, has ardently opposed U.S. drug eradication programs that have relied heavily on aerial herbicide-spraying, and invoked the populist rhetoric of anti-imperialism. During a recent economic conference in Argentina, he joined Chavez in a protest rally outside while President Bush met with other Latin American leaders inside.

On Sunday, he repeated some of his more provocative assertions, saying he would never accept a relationship of "submission" with Washington. Yesterday, he stepped up his criticism of U.S. anti-drug programs, telling reporters in the city of Cochabamba that "the fight against drug trafficking is a false pretext for the United States to install military bases, and we are not in agreement."

Morales, who gained recognition as an indigenous leader of coca farmers in Bolivia's Chapare region, has insisted on the distinction between the traditional farming and use of coca leaf, and the processing and trafficking of cocaine and other illegal drugs. American anti-drug officials seek to continue programs to destroy coca crops and have pushed for a closer relationship with security forces.

There was no immediate comment from the Bush administration on Morales's apparent victory, but one official who requested anonymity said: "We're keeping an open mind about it. We want to make it work, but it depends on what decisions they make, what policies they decide." A statement issued by the State Department Sunday said relations would depend on the "convergence of our interests, and that includes counter-narcotics issues."

In Venezuela, officials said yesterday that they were "very pleased and satisfied" with Morales's victory but would "not get involved" in Bolivian affairs. "We do not intend to manipulate Evo Morales or any other person" in Bolivia, said Jose Vicente Rangel, Venezuela's vice president.

Some observers said the Bush administration could serve U.S. and regional interests best by seeking compromise with Morales rather than responding harshly to his anti-U.S. pronouncements and inadvertently shoving him toward the embrace of Chavez and Castro. They noted that he will face demands from his grass-roots constituents to deliver on social promises, and that U.S. ostracism could make it harder for him to appease them.

One Bolivian business leader, Carlos Kempff, noted worriedly yesterday that some of Morales's radical supporters were already threatening to defect if he did not make major policy changes within 90 days. If that happens, the businessman said, Morales could face the same destabilizing pressures that have brought down Bolivia's past three elected presidents.

"Morales's major policies give the U.S. pause, but he has a tightrope to walk, and it would be unwise to isolate and push him," said John M. Walsh, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit advocacy group. "If the U.S. wants to play rough, he has other options for aid and patronage." But if good relations develop, Walsh suggested, the United States could help Bolivia develop from a poor, coca-dependent economy to a gas-exporting one.

Several analysts said Morales will also come under pressure from such Latin American democracies as Brazil and Argentina to adopt more practical approaches to issues such as natural gas development. They noted that Bolivia is far poorer and has less infrastructure than Venezuela, where record oil revenues have allowed Chavez to fund social programs.

"Foreign investment in Bolivia has diminished significantly, and I suspect Morales's election will further deter it until the rules of the game have been established," said Aronson. "But he has already backed off a little on the rhetoric suggesting he would nationalize everything, and he will discover that without foreign investment, he won't be able to build the infrastructure to move the gas. This will really be a test of his pragmatism."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington and special correspondent Bill Faries in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.

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