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Morales to lead Bolivia to success
Cesar Chelala China Daily  Updated: 2006-01-10 07:30

The assumption of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia promises a significant revamping of the country's political and economic system. He is a popular leader with significant following among the indigenous Bolivian population. He comes to power with an ambitious programme of development for this country. Bolivia's relationship with the United States and with international companies with interest in the country's resources will be critical for his presidency. His visit to China and his talks with Chinese leaders may be significant in terms of achieving important commercial deals.

Morales, one of the founders of the Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, first achieved national prominence in April 2000 when a large international corporation was to take over the privatized water works in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia's second largest city. As a result of its increase in price, water would be out of reach for the majority of the population. Through mass demonstrations led by Morales the privatization scheme was defeated and the country had a first taste of Morales' charisma and ability to lead.

Morales led the cocalero movement, a group of coca leaf-growing campesinos who are resisting the United States' efforts to eradicate coca from the country. Chewing coca leaves is an over 1,000 year old Bolivian tradition. It has energizing effects, squelches hunger and it is also an effective antidote against soroche, high altitude sickness. Any hotel in the capital city of La Paz, located at an altitude of 12,000 feet above sea level, offers newcomers coca-tea as a normal way of dealing with high altitude effects.

The cultivation of coca leaves is the main livelihood for indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples. According to Morales, to eliminate coca leaves production is also to eliminate the Aymaras, Quechua and Guaranies indigenous peoples.

Morales insists that although he favours the exploitation of coca leaves for religious, medicinal and other popular uses, he opposes the conversion of coca leaves into cocaine. He says that under his administration there will be "zero cocaine, zero drug trafficking but not zero coca." He states that the solution to the drug problem should be at the demand, not at the supply level, and says that US eradication efforts carried out so far in Bolivia have not had any effect on cocaine use in the United States. He has offered the White House the formation of a common front against cocaine and drug trafficking.

Bolivia's new president has vowed that the country's vast natural resources will be exploited for the country's own development. Part of his aim is to renegotiate the contracts with international companies that are exploiting Bolivia's natural resources in terms more favourable to the indigenous population. Under current conditions, private international companies have practically complete control over the production and sale of oil and gas, and pay only 18 per cent royalties and no taxes, a situation widely considered abusive.

Bolivia has the second largest natural gas reserves in Latin America and is also rich in silver, tin and other minerals. In spite of that, 63 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Bolivia has among the worst social and health indicators in the hemisphere, a situation that Morales has promised to change.

Morales position regarding growth of coca leaves and his energy policy have already put him on a collision course with international companies. British, American and Spanish oil and gas companies have obtained substantial profits from the privatization of those industries during the 1990s. Little of those profits, however, have benefited Bolivia's poor, whose protests have forced the resignation of two presidents in two years.

For Morales, his biggest challenge is to balance social demands for radical change with international companies' fears and US pressures. The United States would do well not to confront him in ways that would increase the population's animosity towards Washington's policies.

Morales wants to secure people's rights by convening a constitutional assembly for next summer whose main goal will be the creation of conditions for fair development and exploitation of the country's resources. If in spite of formidable obstacles Morales succeeds, he will be able to redress centuries of abuse of Bolivia's indigenous population.

Dr Cesar Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on foreign affairs.

(China Daily 01/10/2006 page4)

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