Saturday, May 27, 2006

Some are worrying Bolivia has sold soul to Venezuela

Posted on Sat, May. 27, 2006

Some are worrying Bolivia has sold soul to Venezuela
Deals brokered by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela have some wondering if his
political ally Evo Morales is signing away too much of Bolivia's freedom.

EL ALTO, Bolivia - Air Force conscript Máximo Paco beamed as he showed
off the national ID card that he had long wanted but just received under
a new program financed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

''I'm very thankful for the help from Venezuela,'' Paco said as he
surveyed a table bedecked with a laptop, two laser printers, a webcam
and a card laminator -- part of a massive ID system launched in Bolivia
two months ago but modeled after one begun by Chávez in Venezuela two
years ago.

The Bolivian ID card effectively recognizes Paco's citizenship, secures
his right to vote and makes him eligible for an array of public
services. But the program also has raised concerns in Bolivia because
Chávez allegedly used the system to pack Venezuela's voting rolls with
his supporters.

The ID card program here is only part of an aggressive effort by the
leftist Chávez to use his oil riches to help his political ally,
Bolivian President Evo Morales, and help spread his leftist-populist
agenda beyond Venezuela.

The overall effort, estimated at more than $1 billion, also includes the
construction of radio stations, an airport and several roads, resettling
landless poor, the purchase of banks and joint ventures in education,
healthcare, natural gas and mining.

The new Chávez-Morales friendship has drawn concern in Washington, which
sees Chávez as a troublemaker for the region, as well as in Brazil,
Spain and Great Britain, where officials believe Chávez pushed Bolivia
to adopt a harsher natural gas nationalization decree than expected.

Chávez and Morales sealed their new alliance Friday by signing some 200
economic and cultural agreements during a ceremony in central Bolivia.

''Bolivia and Venezuela are embracing forever, taking the path of
equality and justice,'' Chávez told tens of thousands of Bolivians in
the Chapare, the country's coca growing region.

Many ordinary Bolivians, like Paco, give high marks to Chávez. But his
activities deeply worry others.

''I'm afraid we are going on a path of becoming a colony of Venezuela,''
said Fernando Messmer, an opposition member of Congress.

Besides the ID card program, Venezuela is also financing the following:

• Construction of a petrochemical plant and a gas processing plant with
YPFB, Bolivia's state-owned energy company, and 14 gas stations to be
operated jointly by YPFB and PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company.

• A joint PDVSA-YPFB natural gas production and exploration venture that
will cost at least $400 million.

• Dozens of advisors from PDVSA sent here to strengthen YPFB, which,
under the nationalization decree, is taking over operations previously
in private hands.

• The installation of 30 rural radio stations to be run by indigenous
supporters of Morales, at a cost of $1.5 million.

• Construction of a new $100 million airport in the city of Sucre.

• The purchase of two banks.

• $100 million in credits to provide technical assistance to poor
peasants who will receive land under a new government program.

• Construction of a Venezuelan-Bolivian asphalt plant.

• Measles vaccination and literacy programs, both in conjunction with
Cuban personnel.

• The donation of 520 computers to Bolivian schools and 1,000
scholarships for Bolivians to study in Venezuela.

Venezuela also is sending diesel fuel to Bolivia in exchange for
soybeans, and the two countries signed a trade accord with Cuba aimed at
offsetting free market trade deals between the United States and other
Latin American countries.

Chávez has also supplied Venezuelan aircraft to ferry Morales on his two
trips to Europe since his December election. Presidential spokesman Alex
Contreras has denied the widespread belief in La Paz that Venezuela is
even supplying bodyguards for Morales.

Many Bolivians welcome Venezuela potentially replacing the United States
as the main benefactor of South America's poorest country. U.S. aid --
currently $150 million a year -- has mostly financed the antidrug war.

''We're convinced that assistance from the U.S. has come with strings,''
said Dionicio Gutiérrez, an Indian leader in the eastern city of Santa
Cruz. ``Venezuela is giving us assistance without any demands.''

But other political and economic sector leaders have a darker view.

''Chávez is influencing Evo to the point where I'm beginning to not like
what I'm seeing,'' said Enrique Menacho, who heads the oil and gas
chamber of commerce in Santa Cruz. ``It's an open romance.''

Indeed it is.

Morales and his government have openly touted the role of Venezuela in
financing the program to provide national ID cards to the estimated one
million Bolivians who lack them, out of an estimated population of 8.5

'The Venezuelans' help was key, the program was new to us,'' said Percy
Paredes, vice minister of internal security. A poster of Chávez adorned
one wall of his office, a photo of Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara another.

Paredes acknowledged the program has failed to meet early expectations
for issuing massive numbers of ID cards. Only 52,000 ID cards have been
handed out in an ongoing program. Some 5,000 people were registered to
vote before the registration cut-off for the upcoming July 2 elections
for a constituent assembly where Morales is expected to push for
profound changes.

Paredes said Venezuela donated 900 laptops, along with the printers, the
other equipment and $900,000 in cash to pay for meals, transportation
and lodging of Bolivians and Venezuelans who work on the program.

In Venezuela, the program awarded national ID cards to some two million
people, and registered most of them to vote, over a six-month period
just before a recall referendum in 2004 handily won by Chávez. Critics
have said Chávez used the program to pack loyalists into the voting
lists. The Venezuelan government has denied that was the intent.

Morales opponents in Bolivia note that his electoral campaign office in
Santa Cruz served as an office for Bolivia's ID card program until a
news report prompted the government to shut it down the next day.

''It was an error,'' said Paredes, who emphasized that the program was
designed to bring into the mainstream of Bolivian life those who had
never obtained national IDs.

Gastón Nuñez, director of the state television and radio network, also
denied any propaganda role for the 30 Venezuela-financed radio stations,
to be run by indigenous supporters of Morales.

''In this new era, Indians should have the right to decide what they
want to listen to,'' Nuñez said, adding that the stations would inform
listeners of community health, education and civic programs. ``The
existing stations have marginalized indians.''

He said the first station would open in June in Orinoca, the mountain
town where Morales was born 47 years ago.

Special correspondent Phil Gunson in Caracas contributed to this report.

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