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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Hugo Chavez visits Bolivian coca region

SHINAHOTA, Bolivia - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who often accuses the U.S. of plotting to overthrow him, warned Bolivia's president Friday he could be facing the same prospect.

Chavez spoke during a visit to the heart of Bolivia's coca-growing region with Bolivian leader Evo Morales and Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage — a trip designed to bolster trade ties among three leftist governments.

Chavez responded to
President Bush's comment Monday that he was "concerned about the erosion of democracy" in Bolivia and Venezuela.

"If the U.S. president says he's worried the democracy is eroding in Bolivia, this simply means that he's already given the green light to start conspiring against the democratic government of Bolivia," said Chavez, dressed in a traditional Bolivian poncho and wooly hat with Morales and Cuban Vice president Carlos Lage at his side.

"You have to tell this gentleman that democracy is being reborn in Bolivia and Venezuela, that they're now creating their own laws and not the laws (the United States) wants to impose," he added.

Chavez, an ally of Cuba's
Fidel Castro, has repeatedly accused the United States of trying to overthrow him to seize his country's vast oil reserves. U.S. officials have denied that and accused him of being a threat to democracies in the region.

Bush has expressed concern about a growing Venezuelan-Cuban-Bolivian partnership, and on Monday tacitly sided with the governments of Peru and Nicaragua, which have accused Chavez of interfering in their presidential elections. The U.S. imposed a ban last week on arms sales to Venezuela because of what it says is a lack of support by Chavez's government for counterterrorism efforts.

Bolivia recently nationalized its natural gas industry and the U.S. is concerned such policies discourage foreign investment and curb the region's enthusiasm for signing trade pacts with the United States.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus responded to Chavez's remarks by saying: "We don't have any plans to overthrow the Bolivian government."

Morales has called his alliance with Cuba and Venezuela an "axis of good" and refers to Chavez as a "tutor." He recently signed their "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas," a trade pact based on socialist principles, and criticizes the U.S. trade deals other Latin American countries are signing.

"If some countries want to be subordinated by free trade agreements, there will never be Latin American integration, and for that, it's important to liberate ourselves, liberate the people," Morales told thousands of Bolivians gathered in Shinahota, 370 miles southeast of the Bolivian capital of La Paz.

The crowd, mostly coca leaf farmers, witnessed Morales, Chavez and Lage seal a close alliance and celebrate new economic accords between Venezuela and Bolivia.

Chavez has already pledged more than $140 million in donations and loans to Bolivia. Morales and Chavez also are creating a joint mining company.

But Bolivia's huge natural gas reserves are the real prize, and Morales clearly needs outside help.

Negotiations with a half-dozen foreign energy firms have been slow since Morales nationalized the natural gas industry earlier this month. Bolivia's cash-strapped state energy company won't be able to extract and profit from this resource without major new investments.

Venezuela's oil minister, Rafael Ramirez, has confirmed plans to invest $500 million in the short term for a gas processing plant, and up to $1.5 billion long term in Bolivia's gas industry.

Now Chavez is promising to make Venezuela's state-owned energy firm, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, a minority partner with Bolivia not only to build the plant but also to explore for gas and certify Bolivia's reserves.

Bolivia — South America's poorest nation — has long been dependent on foreign aid.

The United States remains Bolivia's largest donor, giving about $150 million annually. But much of the money is tied to the war on drugs, which Morales has said unfairly targets poor farmers of coca leaf — the raw ingredient for cocaine — and gives the Washington too much sway with Bolivia's military.

Morales brought Chavez and Lage on Friday to the Chapare region where he rose to power leading the coca farmer's union. It is also where farmers led by Morales have clashed with Washington-backed Bolivian troops sent to eradicate plants used for cocaine production.

Chavez is supporting Morales' call to legalize and industrialize the coca leaf by offering Bolivia $1 million to research the uses of coca and to build factories to process coca flour or tea.


Associated Press Writer Fiona Smith contributed to this report from La Paz.
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