Boliviaâ€™s president-elect, Evo Morales, paid a visit to Venezuela on Tuesday, as part of a â€œworld tourâ€ prior to his late January inauguration. There, he met with Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez and with Ollanta Humala, a populist who holds a slim lead in polls for Peruâ€™s April presidential elections. ChÃ¡vez celebrated the formation of what he called a new â€œaxis of goodâ€ in Latin America, and Morales said he and ChÃ¡vez were uniting in â€œa fight against neoliberalism and imperialism.â€
The Bolivian president-elect did not leave empty-handed. In a signed agreement, ChÃ¡vez committed Venezuela to providing Bolivia with the following:
- An immediate $30 million donation to pay for social programs.
- According to Boliviaâ€™s La RazÃ³n newspaper, â€œVenezuela will supply all of the fuel that the Bolivian population consumes, which has an approximate cost of $150 million per year, in exchange for food produced in Bolivia.â€
- Technical assistance for gas and oil exploration, and assistance in overhauling Boliviaâ€™s energy sector.
- A commitment to help Bolivia build highways, both within the country and between Bolivia and its neighbors.
- Educational assistance to Bolivia, including a literacy program with the goal of eradicating illiteracy within thirty months.
- Venezuelan assistance with land reform, agriculture and healthcare.
At a moment where most observers are wondering what kind of leftist Evo Morales is going to be â€“ a ChÃ¡vez or a Lula, to use the oversimplified terms used often here in Washington â€“ this package of aid is likely to mean a big push in Venezuelaâ€™s direction.
What is the U.S. government doing to counteract this, to keep Morales and the MAS from abandoning the center, and to keep relations cordial and constructive? U.S. relations with Morales have traditionally been horrible, as one would expect relations to be between a coca-growersâ€™ movement leader and the main promoter of forced coca eradication.
For now, U.S. officials are taking a â€œwait and seeâ€ attitude. â€œWe’ll see what kinds of policies President Morales pursues and, based on that, we’ll see what kind of relationship the United States and Bolivia will have,â€ State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Tuesday. Before leaving for Venezuela, Morales and U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee even sat down for an hour for their first-ever conversation.
Thatâ€™s nice, but when ChÃ¡vez is promising Morales cash, social programs and fuel, what is the U.S. counter-offer?
Well, there is none. In fact, itâ€™s worse. Hereâ€™s what the U.S. government has to offer Bolivia (and what it would have offered to any other Bolivian candidate, had he won).
- A projected $8.5 million, or 5 percent, cut in aid (military plus economic) from 2004 to 2006, from $157.8 million to $149.3 million.
- From that amount, a cutoff of at least $2.6 million in military aid and up to $8 million in economic aid per year, because Bolivia hasnâ€™t granted U.S. military personnel on Bolivian soil immunity from the International Criminal Court.
- The risk of being de-certified, and having even more aid and credit cut off, if it is determined that Moralesâ€™ government is not sufficiently cooperating in the war on drugs. Not to mention a likely big fight over forced coca eradication, on which the U.S. government currently spends well over $11 million per year.
- A take-it-or-leave-it approach to a free-trade agreement, even though the U.S. terms would cause a severe shock to Boliviaâ€™s agricultural sector.
- A dwindling likelihood that Bolivia will get aid through the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), though Bolivia is among only four Latin American countries invited to submit proposals for assistance.
By the way, why didnâ€™t Morales consider visiting the United States on his â€œworld tour,â€ which includes Cuba, Venezuela, Spain, Belgium, South Africa, China and Brazil? â€œMr Morales would have gone to Washington had he been invited,â€ a spokesman told the BBC. But no invitation has been issued.
If one were to design a policy deliberately aimed at pushing Morales away from the center-left and into Hugo ChÃ¡vezâ€™s warm embrace, it wouldnâ€™t look much different from this one.