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Chavez, Russia gaining influence throughout Latin America

Sunday, September 28, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

Loory: Important changes are taking place in Latin America. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales, an indigenous Indian, has pledged to bring the benefits of his country's natural gas and mineral wealth to the people of the mountains. Morales is opposed by leaders in provinces where the gas exists and the population is largely descended from Europeans, not indigenous Bolivians. Last month, there was a referendum proposing recall of the president from office, but Morales won more votes than in the original election. He now wants to reform the country's constitution, giving him more power. The United States government has opposed Morales. In response, Morales has expelled the American ambassador and shut U.S. aid organizations working in Bolivia. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is Morales' ally. In Paraguay, leftist Roman Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo was elected president last spring and took office last month. Bring us up-to-date with what is going on in Bolivia.

Dan Keane, Bolivia correspondent, Associated Press, La Paz, Bolivia: Things are calm at the moment. Morales has asked the USAID and DEA to leave a central area in Bolivia where coca is grown. Morales is pushing for a constitutional referendum; the eastern states vow to oppose. The eastern states can drag this out, but Morales wants to get the constitution passed before his term is up in 2010. A stalemate could continue for some time.

Loory: The violence has decreased and negotiations are going on?

Keane: (On September 11), there was a clash in the eastern state of Pando in which 15, mostly Morales supporters, were killed. Since then, everyone has said, as much as we hate each other, we're not going to war over this. Usually, it stays calm for a few months before people feel the need to take to the streets again.

Loory: What does a clash between indigenous people from the mountains and others mean to the rest of Andean Latin America?

Fiona Ortiz, Southern Cone of Latin America bureau chief, Reuters, Buenos Aires, Argentina: It is a problem for the economics of the region because there is growing demand for energy. A lot of countries are not able to produce or import enough energy to meet their demands. Argentina depends on natural gas from Bolivia and Brazil. Also, the region prides itself on having left behind an era of military government, an era of great conflict, and wants to retain democratic stability.

Loory: In Bolivia, where is the opposition to rule of law and democratic government? Is it from those against Morales or is it Morales and his government itself?

Claudia Antunes, foreign editor, Folha de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil: It is hard to say who is breaking the law in Bolivia. Morales has support from most of the leaders in the region including Chavez but also (Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva) from Brazil, (Michelle) Bachelet from Chile and (Alvaro) Uribe from Colombia. All of them met in Santiago at the newly founded regional institution, UNASUR. Lula and Bachelet were most important in reaching an agreement. Morales has a strengthened position to call for a referendum on the constitution because none of the neighbors would accept a coup against him or a division of the country.

Loory: Morales has support in Latin America, yet the U.S. government is opposed to him. Is that because of his relationship with Chavez?

Kelly Hearn, World and National Security Desk, The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.: A lot of Washington policy people are worried about a certain type of authoritarian socialism. The U.S. government does not want to see democracy fail in Bolivia. But, at a time of waning U.S. influence in the region, they do not want to see Morales linking with Chavez, who has petrodollars and ideology sweeping other nations including Colombia and Nicaragua. There is a rise in regional organizations that don't include Washington. The Bank of the South, headed by Venezuelan petrodollars, is an alternative to conditional IMF loans.

Antunes: The Brazilian government views Morales in a different light than Chavez. Although Morales is an ally of Chavez, he has the support of those that belong to the modern left as they say, so it is not so simple.

Hearn: Washington has an eye on something that seems to have intensified since the Georgian-Russian conflict. Recently, the U.S. decertified Bolivia in anti-narcotics programs, which puts a lot of money at risk. The Russian government officially requested to discuss replacing the U.S. money for those anti-narcotic programs. A lot of people say Russia has no dog in that fight; they're making a symbolic slap in the face: If you come to our backdoor in Georgia, we can also come into your backdoor. Venezuela and Bolivia's open arms to Russia and Russia's increasing willingness to come into Latin America (are more sore points) for people in Washington.

Loory: How might the U.S. react to what Russia may be trying to do in Latin America?

Hearn: It is hard to say. A couple of weeks ago, Russia sent bombers to Venezuela, and they ran military exercises. Last week, a top-level delegation visited Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. In Cuba, they promised exchange of space technologies and perhaps building a space station or space base. In Venezuela, they sought oil extraction agreements. In Nicaragua, they also talked about the possibility of oil concessions. Russian leaders are coming, not with war talk, but with trade delegations like China did in 2004. But Russia is less sensitive to how the U.S. perceives its presence than China. According to Philip Goldberg, the ambassador who was kicked out of Bolivia, Iran now has a consulate in Bolivia.

Ortiz: In the vast majority of Bolivia and Paraguay, the hearts and minds are already won by Venezuela. There is good will toward Morales and Chavez and hope in Paraguay that Lugo will be similar. Venezuela is pouring money into Bolivia and has started sending aid and investment to Paraguay. When the U.S. sends a little money, Venezuela immediately announces a much larger amount. People see Chavez as a strong person in the region who is leading a new way of thinking, maybe not in the upper class and business elites, but on a popular level.

Loory: How is the economy in Chile doing? How does it view what is going on in Paraguay and Bolivia?

Justin Vogler, freelance journalist, lecturer in socio-economics, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Chile: The Chilean economy has sustained growth for the past 10 to 15 years and has come to be seen as one of the most successful liberal economies in South America. The governing coalition is broad and goes from people on the far left, the Socialist Party, to people on the far right, the Christian Democrats. They have very different ways of looking at things. The Socialist Party sees what is happening in Venezuela and Bolivia as a good thing. They like the idea of greater independence from the U.S. and a new kind of socialism. The Christian Democrats don't want friction with the U.S. They want more stability, creating more economic growth, not confrontation with the U.S. from people like Chavez.

Loory: As with most global news stories, what is going on in Latin America these days is hard to understand, and too often it seems the U.S. government takes too simplistic an approach.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Chris Hamby, Sananda Sahoo and Hui Wang. The transcriber is Pat Kelly.


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