Bolivian president-elect praises Castro and Chavez on trip to discuss nationalized gas |

Bolivian president-elect praises Castro and Chavez on trip to discuss nationalized gas

CARACAS, Venezuela – Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales, fresh from a visit with Fidel Castro, launched a world tour Tuesday by joining with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in a denunciation of free-market economics – a sign of the growing relationship among the three leftist leaders.Notably, the tour includes stops in Spain, France, Belgium, South Africa, China and Brazil – but not Washington. Morales’ spokesman says he was not invited.Arriving in Caracas aboard a specially arranged Cuban jetliner, Morales said he and Chavez were uniting in a “fight against neoliberalism and imperialism.”The Venezuelan leader received him with full military honors as well as hugs and smiles. Crowds of leftist, pro-government supporters cheered as Morales and Chavez arrived at the National Pantheon in downtown Caracas, then headed to a private meeting at Miraflores Palace.Morales is on the first leg of a trip apparently meant to explore the future of Bolivia’s vast natural gas holdings – the second largest in South America – which the president-elect says he wants to nationalize.It is also designed to show that the coca-growing protest organizer has the presidential grit to hold his own on the world stage and tackle the deep problems of his country, including poverty and political instability.In praising Castro and Chavez on Tuesday, he clearly established Washington’s fiercest Latin American critics as his models.”We are here to resolve social problems, economic problems,” Morales said. “This movement is not only in Bolivia; Fidel in Cuba and Hugo in Venezuela are logging triumphs in social movements and leftist policies.””We are going to change Bolivia. We are going to change Latin America,” Morales said.Chavez referred to the three leftist leaders as “an axis of good” – a play on President Bush’s reference to North Korea, Iran and prewar Iraq as the “axis of evil.”Just back from his first trip abroad over the weekend – to communist Cuba – Morales met on Monday with U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee. Representatives of both sides said the meeting was private and declined to give details.Morales vowed during his campaign to be Washington’s “nightmare,” but has said he is open to developing relations with the United States. American officials, too, have said they hope to work with Morales.”We’ll see what kinds of policies President Morales pursues,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “And, based on that, we’ll see what kind of relationship the United States and Bolivia will have.”Chavez said he and Morales would discuss the nationalization of Bolivia’s oil and gas resources – an issue on which Morales campaigned.Morales has said the country’s natural gas reserves have been “looted,” national resources would be placed under state ownership and current exploration contracts must be re-negotiated – a tactic used by Chavez to boost his country’s oil revenues.But Morales said he would not take over foreign oil and gas companies operating in Bolivia.Chavez already has promised financial aid to Bolivia. The Venezuelan leader says he is leading a socialist revolution and has taken increasing control of the oil and gas industry.High oil prices and the greater share of industry profits have allowed him to fund growing social programs, a goal Morales says he shares.Morales’ opposition to U.S.-led efforts to eradicate coca cultivation in his Andean nation also have alarmed Washington. Coca is the source of cocaine, but Bolivia’s Indians also use it for hunger suppression and medicinal purposes.Morales tended llamas as a young boy and rose to power at the head of street demonstrations that toppled two presidents, demanding that more power be transferred from the country’s long-ruling lighter-skinned elite to Bolivia’s poor Indian majority.Vail, Colorado

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