Bolivia's Morales Huddles with Chavez in Venezuela

Bolivia's president-elect, Evo Morales, has kicked off a seven-nation tour and met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Tuesday. The former coca farmer has already caused U.S. concern by vowing to promote the legal coca industry, and is developing alliances with a growing number of Latin American leaders openly opposed to the United States.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Bolivia's president-elect has kicked off a seven-nation tour meant to boost international alliances. Evo Morales' tour does not include a stop in the United States. Instead the former coca farmer is developing alliances with a growing number of Latin-American leaders openly opposed to the US. Last week Morales met with Cuba's Fidel Castro. Yesterday he visited another harsh critic of the United States, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. From Caracas, Brian Ellsworth reports.

BRIAN ELLSWORTH reporting:

The meeting between Chavez and Morales shook the country out of its traditional post-New Year's haze.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

ELLSWORTH: Chavez's entire presidential Cabinet met Morales. Later, Venezuela offered $30 million to fund health and education programs in Bolivia. Venezuela's oil industry will also offer discounted asphalt and diesel to the Andean nation. But the specific agreements were not the most noteworthy aspect of Tuesday's meeting. Chavez and Morales focused on the growing movement for Latin-American integration and the increasing dissatisfaction with the United States' historical domination of the region.

President-elect Mr. EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Spanish spoken)

ELLSWORTH: `We are in times of change,' Morales said. `The hour of the people is upon us. The new millennium will belong to the people.' The two leaders represent the thorn in the side of the US government. Morales has indicated that he may legalize the cultivation of coca, the principal ingredient in cocaine. At the same time, he plans to begin nationalizing the country's natural gas industry at a time of surging global energy prices. Venezuela's Chavez has been a similar headache for the State Department. Washington has consistently accused him of destabilizing democracy in the region and violating basic democratic principles. But his massive social development campaign has boosted popular support and allowed him to win repeated elections. And since Venezuela's oil industry provides almost 15 percent of US oil supply, the US has been unable to ignore him. Alberto Gardrigo(ph) is a Venezuelan political analyst usually critical of the Chavez government. He says an alliance with Morales will boost Chavez's already influential position on the continent.

Mr. ALBERTO GARDRIGO (Political Analyst): (Spanish spoken)

ELLSWORTH: Gardrigo believes the election of Evo Morales represents a major step forward for Chavez's leftist movement. Morales, an Aymara Indian who will be Bolivia's first indigenous president, won the December 18 elections with a 54 percent majority. He will take office on January 22nd. Presidential elections in other Latin-American countries this year are likely to bring more leftist presidents in nations like Mexico and Chile. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Tuesday remained cautiously optimistic about Morales' election.

Mr. SEAN McCORMACK (State Department Spokesman): We're ready to work with any democratically elected government in the hemisphere. You know, our only concerns are that the democratically elected governments continue--that democratically elected governments govern in a democratic manner.

ELLSWORTH: McCormack did not touch on the issue of coca production, which is likely to be a point of tension with Bolivia. Chavez, however, offered Venezuela's full support for Bolivian coca farmers to resist US-led coca eradication efforts.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)

ELLSWORTH: He called the US anti-drug campaign an imperialist effort to interfere in Latin-American affairs. The statement is likely to further ruffle feathers in Washington. For NPR News, I'm Brian Ellsworth in Caracas.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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