Bolivia bombast

December 29, 2005

The recent election of a left-leaning populist as president of Bolivia has worrisome implications for Latin America and for the region's relationship with the United States.

Evo Morales, the president-elect, has called President Bush a "terrorist" and pledged to be a "nightmare" for the administration and to end his country's "relationship of submission" with the U.S. He also wants to halt a long-standing and successful coca leaf eradication program between the two countries that has reduced significantly the flow of Bolivian cocaine to the U.S.

Mr. Morales has adopted the belligerent, leftist rhetoric of Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who have effectively stoked paranoia about American intentions in Latin America to redirect the anger and dissatisfaction of their mostly poor residents at the U.S. Bolivia is South America's poorest country; most of its 9 million people earn less than $1 a day.

While these three countries pose no significant threat to the United States, other Latin American countries are also turning leftward, and 12 presidential elections are slated to take place in the region in the coming year. Administration officials are worried the region might split, with half following the lead of Mr. Morales and company, an outcome that could undermine U.S. interests. For example, Bolivia has the second-largest natural gas reserve in Latin America, and Mr. Morales has said he wants to nationalize privately owned gas companies. Venezuela is the fourth-largest supplier of U.S. oil, and Mr. Castro has used immigration from Cuba as a weapon against the U.S., alternately restricting and allowing thousands of desperate Cubans to take to the seas and head for Miami when it suits him.

The Bush administration has taken a wait-and-see stance toward Mr. Morales, but it should not ignore him if it wants to shore up lagging U.S. credibility in the region and retain support for anti-cocaine-production programs in Peru and Colombia. The administration should engage Mr. Morales, using the more than $150 million in aid it gives Bolivia as an influential carrot or stick. Mr. Morales' three predecessors were quickly turned out of office because of economic pressures. He can't afford to lose U.S. aid or risk alienating foreign governments and investors who are influenced by the U.S.

As it did with Mr. Chavez, the Bush administration's bad-mouthing of Mr. Morales backfired and only made him more popular. But an equal measure of diplomacy and toughness could turn Mr. Morales into a regional partner instead of another troublesome distraction.

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