Tue, Jan 03, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Morales to meet Chavez at start of world trip

LATIN LEFT After his trip to Cuba last week to meet Fidel Castro, Bolivian president-elect Evo Morales was due in Venezuela today to meet fellow US critic Hugo Chavez

AP , COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA

Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales will follow up his meeting with Cuban President Fidel Castro with a trip to Venezuela today to see leftist President Hugo Chavez, his spokesman, Alex Contreras, said.

But Morales starting his international travels with visits to Castro and Chavez, the region's fiercest critics of Washington, does not mean he is opposed to developing ties with the US, Contreras said on Sunday.

Morales, who will head to Europe later this week to start a world tour, would have gone to Washington had he been invited, Contreras added.

The leftist Bolivian leader's close ties with Castro and Chavez "do not aim at an axis of evil; rather, to an axis of good," the spokesman said.

In reaching out to Havana and Caracas, Contreras said, Morales was consolidating "diplomatic, bilateral relations of respect,'' not relations based on "imposition ... [or] conditions.''

Morales, who takes office on Jan. 22, has criticized Washington for trying to impose its will on Bolivia and other Latin American countries.

Contreras said Morales was prepared to talk with US officials as long as diplomatic conditions are different from what they have been before.

If that doesn't happen, "unfortunately, relations with the United States can deteriorate badly,'' he said.

Officials in Washington have expressed concern about the growing relationship between Morales, Chavez and Castro -- part of a Latin American tilt to the left.

They are also worried about Morales' opposition to US-led efforts to eradicate coca cultivation in his Andean nation.

Coca is used to make cocaine but also has traditional uses among Bolivia's Indians.

Morales has eased his anti-US rhetoric after winning the Dec. 18 election, saying that while he supports coca growing he opposes cocaine trafficking.

Morales plans to spend only about six hours in Venezuela's capital before starting a tour of several European countries, South Africa, China and Brazil, Contreras said.

His trip to Caracas comes at the invitation of Chavez, who called Morales while he was in Havana according to Contreras. Morales returned to Bolivia from Cuba on Saturday.

Contreras also said Morales, who flew to and from Havana on a plane sent by Castro, had declined an offer from Castro to use a Cuban government jet on his world tour.

"There is great concern, especially on the part of Fidel, over the question of the security of the president-elect,'' said the spokesman, who added that allies in Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, were also worried about his safety.

He declined to be more specific about possible threats to Morales, but MAS leaders consider the US government a likely eventual enemy of Morales because of his pro-coca stance and his ideological links to Caracas and Havana.

Morales had thanked Castro for the offer of the plane, Contreras said, but preferred to take commercial flights and rely on "the security of the people.''

From Caracas, the 46-year-old Morales will fly to Madrid for a meeting tomorrow with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Unlike his trip to Cuba, where he was accompanied by a party of 60, Morales will go to Venezuela and on the rest of the tour with a small party including his economic adviser Carlos Villegas.

Contreras said Chavez has already offered aid to Morales' government, including a program to provide identity documents to thousands of Bolivian peasants, with the goal of boosting suffrage in rural areas.

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