Mon, May 01, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Bolivia cements trade ties with Cuba and Venezuela


Bolivia's new left-leaning president strengthened his government's ties with Cuba and Venezuela, forming a bloc that rejects US-backed free trade and promises a socialist version of regional commerce and cooperation.

With Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez seated nearby, President Evo Morales on Saturday signed an updated version of the so-called Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, adding Bolivia as a third member.

"In Cuba and Venezuela we find unconditional solidarity," Morales said. "They are the best allies for changing Bolivia."

As part of the new alliance, Cuba promised to send Bolivian doctors to provide medical care to poor people, and teachers to conduct literacy campaigns. Venezuela will send gasoline to the Andean nation and set up a US$100 million fund for development programs and a US$30 million fund for other social projects.

Cuba and Venezuela also agreed to buy all of Bolivia's soybeans, recently left without markets after Colombia signed a free trade pact with the US.

Dressed in his typical olive green uniform, Castro, who turns 80 in August, said sharing the spotlight with two younger, like-minded leaders "makes me the happiest man in the world."

Afterward, the three presidents were greeted by tens of thousands of cheering people gathered in the broad Plaza of the Revolution to celebrate the signing.

The agreement is "a clever mixture of politics and economics, weighted toward the politics," said Gary Hufbauer, an economist at the Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank.

Venezuela-Cuba trade is expected to reach more than US$3.5 billion this year -- about 40 percent higher than last year.

The deal signed between Chavez and Castro has Venezuela -- the world's fifth largest oil exporter and a major supplier to the US -- selling 90,000 barrels a day of crude to the communist-run island at international market prices, but in exchange for agricultural products and other services instead of cash.

The addition of Bolivia will beef up the grouping's economic potential with the Andean nation's vast natural gas reserves.

Morales, a union leader who was swept to power on a leftist platform and has long railed against US economic and drug policies, vowed during his campaign to be "the nightmare of the US government."

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