Sun, May 07, 2006 - Page 6 News List

`Axis of good' helping poor Bolivians

PEOPLE TO PEOPLE Support from neighbors Cuba and Venezuela is helping new President Evo Morales fulfill promises to deliver a million Bolivians from poverty

AP , LA PAZ

Indigenous women Juana Yujra, 63, right, and Julieta Luna Aliaga, 55, take their first week of an alphabetization program led by the Bolivian government and backed by technical cooperation with Cuba in Laja, 37km from La Paz, on Friday. Bolivian President Evo Morales has called his alliance with Venezuela and Cuba the ``axis of good.''

PHOTO: AP

Gladys Melani was nearly blind from cataracts. Juana Mamani was illiterate. Sharon Mayra didn't officially exist. What these three Bolivians had in common was poverty, and help from Cuba and Venezuela in solving their problems.

Cuban President Fidel Castro and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez have made a fast and extensive start in providing Bolivian President Evo Morales' 15-week-old, left-wing government with humanitarian aid, winning the thanks of its beneficiaries as well as political points.

It's part of what Morales calls an "axis of good" -- in a jibe at US President George W. Bush's use of "axis of evil" to describe the US' enemies.

Melani's cataracts were removed for free by one of some 700 Cuban doctors who have fanned out to the farthest corners of Bolivia. Cuban teaching materials are helping Mamani learn to read and write.

Technology from Venezuela got 17-year-old Mayra the ID card without which she couldn't travel abroad, vote, enter government buildings or accumulate a pension. An estimated 1 million poor Bolivians, nearly 10 percent of the population, are expected to get the same help.

Venezuela is also helping to set up 109 rural radio stations so that Morales can spread his socialist gospel much as Chavez has done.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, won office last December in a landslide of discontent with the traditional ruling class. On April 29, he signed a "trade agreement of the people" with Castro and Chavez, a mostly symbolic alternative to free-trade agreements that Washington has reached with other Latin American countries.

Two days later, he decreed the nationalization of Bolivia's natural gas, an even more forceful assertion of state control of mineral resources than Chavez has taken with his nation's oil.

The US remains Bolivia's single biggest foreign donor, contributing a bit less than half of the US$360 million annually with which rich nations collectively pay 60 percent of the Bolivian government's bills.

"What these doctors and workers have generated goes beyond cooperation and is more about inter-human relations," said Alberto Nogales, Bolivia's vice-minister of health.

Critics, however, see dangers.

Fernando Messmer, an opposition congressman and former foreign minister, says Venezuela could use the database set up for the ID cards to keep tabs on Bolivians.

He has no proof, but contends Venezuela and Cuba are concerned more with promoting Morales than helping the poor.

"It's dangerous because it's moving toward consolidating a totalitarian state,"' he said.

Venezuela's state energy company, meanwhile, has signed a contract to build an ethane, methane and propane plant in Bolivia, and Venezuelan experts are involved in the details of Morales' gas nationalization.

Flush with petrodollars, Chavez has offered cheap fuel to 13 Caribbean countries, as well as some poor US districts, and scholarships for Haitians.

Meanwhile the Cubans, who in Cold War times sent soldiers to fight in Angola and Nicaragua, have focused on bringing medicine and literacy to friendly neighbors, Venezuela included.

A literacy campaign modeled on the one Cuba ran in Venezuela aims to teach Bolivia's 720,000 illiterates to read and write in two years. Cuba has delivered 30,000 TV sets plus workbooks and videotapes for Bolivian volunteer teachers.

It is equipping 20 rural Bolivian hospitals, providing free eye surgery in three new ophthamology centers, and offering to pay for 6,000 Bolivians to study in Cuba.

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