Tyler Bridges, February 19, 2007
La Paz - Bolivian President Evo Morales spoke fondly of Cuba's Fidel Castro, expressed gratitude for the support of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and vowed to continue what he called his ''peaceful, democratic revolution,'' in an exclusive interview with The Miami Herald on Sunday.
Morales also rejected the view of many analysts that he has shifted to the left at the behest of Castro and Chávez.
''I'm here to resolve problems,'' he told The Miami Herald during an hour-long interview at the presidential residence. ``Those who say I've moved left or I've moved right have it wrong. My job is to take care of the poor.''
Bolivia is South America's poorest nation, with nine million residents. But Morales has attracted outsized interest abroad because he is the first self-identified Indian to lead Bolivia since it became a nation 200 years ago.
He has also provoked concern among U.S. policymakers by aligning with Cuba and Venezuela -- he noted dismissively Sunday that some analysts call it the ''axis of evil'' -- while bad-mouthing President Bush from time to time, although he did not do so Sunday.
The recent nationalization of a Swiss mining company has also prompted dismay in Europe.
Taking office a year ago, Morales has filled his Cabinet and key senior posts with Indians previously shut out of power, begun expropriating ''unproductive'' land from big landholders to give to thousands of landless families and carried out a so-called nationalization of the crucial gas sector that forced foreign companies to accept substantially higher taxes.
On Sunday, he said foreign mining companies should expect to begin paying higher taxes soon as well.
''We'll respect private investment,'' he said, ``but we have private mining companies that don't pay any taxes. They'll have to begin to pay.''
Morales, 47, seemed weary Sunday afternoon as he entered the French room at the presidential residence, dressed in a short-sleeve shirt, slacks and sandals, but quickly said, in response to a question, ''I'm never tired.'' (Later, he would go play racquetball.)
Morales had spent Saturday at Bolivia's most celebrated carnaval, in the highland mining town of Oruro. He kept leaving his seat in the stands to dance with the colorfully dressed women but laughed as he said, ``I didn't flirt with anybody.''
Morales grew animated as he discussed the outpouring of support he received there, leaning forward as he said he left earlier than planned to avoid the bigger nighttime crowds.
Polls have shown him consistently with more than 50 percent support, with his strongest backing coming from poor, rural Indians. (About 60 percent of Bolivians live on $2 a day or less.)
Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University professor originally from Bolivia, said by telephone Sunday that Morales has governed shrewdly by making the Indian majority identify with him.
''He's empowered people who felt excluded by the political system,'' Gamarra said. ``Evo is very popular because they see him as one of them.''
Morales has suffered setbacks, however.
A clash between competing groups of miners in the town of Huanuni in October left 16 dead. Critics said his government failed to broker a peaceful resolution.
Morales' efforts to give Indians a bigger role in government and a greater share of the economic pie have exacerbated tensions between the light-skinned descendants of the Spanish elite and inflamed regional tensions between the free market-oriented east and the socialist tendencies of western Bolivia.
Cayetano Llobet, a political analyst in La Paz, questioned whether the assembly meeting in Sucre to write a new constitution for Bolivia will be able to devise a plan that satisfies both the highland Indians in the west and the lowland residents of the east.
Llobet also said Morales' anti-globalization views could lead to Bolivia becoming ``an island in the middle of a globalizing world.''
Morales proudly noted that Bolivia has record foreign reserves of $3 billion and had a budget surplus in 2006 (of 5.9 percent) for the first time since records were kept in 1970. ''We're no longer a beggar nation,'' he said.
But Gonzalo Chávez, an economic analyst at the Catholic University in La Paz, said high international prices for mining and soybeans are driving Bolivia's strong economy.
Chávez also noted that, ironically, Morales has mostly followed the orthodox policies recommended by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to limit government spending and increase reserves.
Morales spoke effusively of Fidel Castro, saying, ``In all the meetings we've had, he never talks to me about socialism, communism or ideology. He only talks about healthcare, education and natural resources. I'm convinced that Fidel is the No. 1 doctor in the world, the No. 1 humanist in the world.''
Cuba has sent dozens of doctors to Bolivia to treat people free of charge and flown nearly 70,000 Bolivians to Cuba for eye treatments.
Venezuela has also spent millions of dollars in aid.
Morales said he shares a lot of Hugo Chavéz's dreams about establishing a unified South America and said of the Venezuelan leader, ``We have a lot of the same ideas.''
First published in the Miami Herald