New Bolivian President May Cause Problems for Bush

Bolivia's newly elected president Evo Morales is a former leader of coca farmers who has campaigned against the U.S. war on drugs. Some see his election as another sign that Latin America is tilting to the left. A separate trend is also causing concern: increasing U.S. military aid to the region.

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Recent elections in Bolivia brought to power a populist president, and it brought a potential new problem for the Bush administration. Evo Morales is a former leader of coca farmers. He campaigned against the US war on drugs. Some cite his election as proof that Latin America is tilting left. And another trend is causing concern among Washington analysts: increasing US military aid to the region. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

In the past, US officials have raised alarms about Morales and his connections to Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez, one of the Bush administration's adversaries in South America. But the official Washington line about Bolivia is more cautious these days. State Department spokesman Sean McCormick says the US will be watching how Morales governs.

Mr. SEAN McCORMICK (State Department Spokesman): The quality of the relationship between the United States and Bolivia will depend on the--what kind of policies they pursue, including how they govern, do they have a respect for democratic institutions.

KELEMEN: Washington will also be watching closely how Morales deals with the coca issue and how he manages Bolivia's natural gas industry. This wait-and-see approach is the right one, according to Peter DeShazo, a former State Department official who now heads the Americas Program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says Evo Morales' campaign rhetoric was similar to that of Hugo Chavez, but he says it's not clear that Morales will follow the Venezuelan president's lead.

Mr. PETER DeSHAZO (The Center for Strategic and International Studies): Chavez is a case apart. He's really sort of in a league of his own. But the other leftists who've been elected, such as Vazquez in Uruguay, Kirchner in Argentina, Lula in Brazil and in the case of Chile, these are figures who play by the democratic rules, and they're products of democratic politics and they pursue orthodox economic policies. The question then is going to be: What's Evo Morales going to turn out to be?

KELEMEN: While Washington considers the tilt to the left of several Latin American countries, Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy says US officials should realize these movements are homegrown. He was among several analysts who recently published a report criticizing US policy in Latin America.

Mr. ADAM ISAACSON (Center for International Policy): They view the rise of populism as something cooked up in Havana or Caracas, and there's some culture and administration officials in the report that indicate that a lot of people seem to think that in the Bush administration. To view it that way is to seriously misunderstand what's happening in Latin America. And to respond with more military aid, if that is the choice that is made, would make the problem much, much worse.

KELEMEN: That's the fear raised in his report, which accuses the Bush administration of treating social problems in Latin America as security threats. Though State Department officials say they work closely with the Pentagon to implement policies in Latin America, Isaacson argues the Pentagon has been trying to grab a bigger role through military training programs and a military approach to the war on drugs.

Mr. ISAACSON: I don't want to see us returning to the days when countering a political tendency was seen as a military aid mission, or when the US relationship with Latin American militaries was actually seen as a bulwark against democratically elected leaders who didn't agree with us. We're not there yet, but it's a concern, and it's something we're watching closely.

KELEMEN: He says US economic assistance to Latin America is only slightly higher than US military aid to the region for the coming year. Bolivia's new president also opposes the US military's influence in the region, particularly in the forced eradication of his country's coca crops. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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