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Fidel Castro's Web

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Posted 9/21/2005 | Latin America: Bolivia has a presidential election coming up that could affect an entire continent. Maybe that's why the dictator of Cuba has "a big plan" to win it.

At first blush, Fidel Castro's interest in Bolivian affairs seems far-fetched. For 40 years, he treated the Andean state with indifference. He seemed to lose interest after angry Bolivians knocked off the invading Che Guevara in 1967.

All that aside, it looks like Castro's old dreams of continental dominion have awakened amid opportunity.

Since passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in July, Castro and his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, have swung south in their effort to influence hemispheric affairs. And in Bolivia they've found an increasingly grim political situation ripe for exploitation.

Their Bolivian political apprentice, Evo Morales, is closing in on the presidency ahead of the Dec. 4 election. His rapid rise in the polls is a direct result of Castro's pump priming.

Cuban state media recently trumped a new "cooperation" program for Bolivia's municipalities. Bolivian villages affiliated with Cuba's openly favored leftist party will now get "free" Cuban doctors at their doors, eye surgery in Cuba, sports programs, medical scholarships and "services" for children and the elderly.

Morales, leader of Bolivia's coca-growers' union, plans to be Castro's second willing domino on the South American continent.

On his own, he commands only 18% of the vote on a basis of angry ethnic and urban politics. But Castro's and Chavez's "aid" seems to be changing that. Morales has now taken the lead, with 28% of voters saying he's the man, enough to secure victory in Congress. Huey Long-style politics, even if Castro does it, seems to work pretty well in weak Latin American economies with depressed democracies.

The tactic is the same one that Chavez, at Castro's direction, used to buy support for himself during his recall referendum last year in Venezuela.

As Morales benefits from Marxist patronage from abroad, he has a second advantage because he is up against a caretaker government of few resources, meaning no competing pork-barrel programs.

Morales saw to that in June when he toppled his second president in two years by blocking roads and threatening to nationalize the energy industry. Not surprisingly, 80% of foreign investment in energy exploration fled in just three months.

Why should this matter? Bolivia is the most strategically important country in South America. Bolivia borders five states and has a large indigenous population influential in Peru and Ecuador. It has vast potential in natural gas, and is critical to Brazil. Bolivia supplies about 30% of the energy used by 30 million people in the Sao Paulo region. That's 50% of Brazil's economy, which is big as Mexico's.

It's also important to Argentina, supplying at least 24% of its natural gas, and indirectly to Chile, which, due to an 1873 war with Bolivia, illicitly buys from Argentina.

As Brazil desperately tries to switch to other forms of energy, the control or even loss of these Bolivian gas pipelines will effectively hammerlock the largest part of the South American economy. It'll also push already soaring natural gas prices higher as this region seeks energy elsewhere.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seems to be aware of the problem. He visited Paraguay and Peru this summer to discuss Cuba's growing influence on their neighbor. For this, he was mocked mercilessly in the U.S. media.

Mock as they will, Rumsfeld's attention to South America is all about a critical country about to slide into the Chavez-Castro orbit, one that controls critical world energy supplies that will be used not to enrich Bolivia's people, but to cash in on spoils and spread trouble as far as it can. Only Castro can emerge the winner from this.

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