Bolivia Frontrunner Flouts U.S. War on Drugs

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Evo Morales promised recently that should he be elected president of Bolivia on Sunday, he would be "a nightmare for the U.S." Bolivia, as the second poorest nation in the hemisphere, is an unlikely specter disturbing Washington's dreams. But he could, nonetheless, present a similar nuisance value in Washington to that of his self-proclaimed “model,” Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez. For one thing, Morales wants to fully legalize the growing of coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived, reversing decades of U.S. efforts to eradicate the crop in Bolivia. And he also hopes to nationalize the tens of trillions of cubic feet of recently discovered natural gas in Bolivia coveted by U.S. energy companies. A Morales victory may also quicken Latin America's leftward drift — left-leaning candidates are favored to win at least five of the nine presidential elections scheduled for 2006 in Latin America.

Voter attitudes south of the Rio Grande show mounting popular rejection of the free-market reforms and trade agreements long promoted by Washington, but which are seen by Latin Americans as widening the region's epic gap between rich and poor. But in Bolivia, the vote also threatens to tear the country apart. If no candidate wins more than 50% at the polls, a president must be chosen by Congress, where Morales's Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) will likely have less clout than the parties of his more conservative rivals such as Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, a former President and IBM executive who currently trails Morales by some six percentage points in recent polls. So Morales — a 46-year-old Aymara Indian farmer who leads Bolivia's coca growers union and narrowly lost the Presidency in 2002 — could win this Sunday but still be snubbed in the Congress next month. That would likely prompt his millions of mostly indigenous followers to turn to what they call "street democracy," as they have done in numerous and often violent protests that ousted two Presidents since 2003. A MAS official even suggested last week that Morales would, if necessary, take power "by force," although the candidate quickly repudiated the remarks. Still, Bolivia's military this week encouraged Congress to avoid provoking an upheaval, with Army chief General Marcelo Antezana declaring that "the armed forces will support the candidate that the people choose."

Altough Morales, who leads voter polls with about 36%, has made bashing Washington a centerpiece of his campaign, he may not be able to keep his populist promises. The U.S. campaign to eliminate coca may be widely unpopular in Bolivia, where chewing the leaf is deeply entrenched in the culture, but by legalizing its cultivation Morales would risk losing the more than $200 million in essential aid Bolivia receives from Washington. Similarly, while it may be politically popular to call for nationalization of natural gas reserves, that would likely alienate the U.S. and other multinational firms that Bolivia needs to extract it.

Morales's rise poses a dilemma for the Bush administration: Previous attacks on the candidate — such as the 2002 warning by then U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha that a Morales victory would mean a drastic reduction in U.S. aid — have actually strengthened his popularity by generating resentment at the perception of Yanqui meddling. But there may be some consolation in the fact that if he is elected, Morales could find his attention consumed by the challenge of simply holding the country together: The whiter, more affluent regions of the county, where most of the new natural gas reserves are located, have threatened to secede, and a Morales victory may amplify such calls. So, as much as he boasts of haunting the dreams of the U.S., a President Morales might be a lot busier dealing with nightmares of his own.