Monday, January 02, 2006

Morales Tries Balancing Act

Newly elected Bolivian President Evo Morales is visiting Cuba and Venezuela this week, further increasing US fears of a leftist leaning Latin American consortium that openly opposes US initiatives in the region. Yet, Morales is also traveling to Europe and expressed a willingness to visit the US if he were invited. (AlJazeera: Towards an 'axis of good').

Morales, a coca farmer, is at odds with US initiatives to eradicate the growth of coca in an attempt to stem the trafficking of cocaine. Yet, as Morales points out, the use of the coca plant is widespread throughout Latin America and has nothing to do with cocaine. Virtually all restaurants in Peru and Bolivia serve coca tea, a rather refreshing light tea that is said to stem the effects of altitude sickness, and most natives chew coca leaves. Morales also claims to be opposed to cocaine trafficking and points to the more common uses of coca that have nothing to do with the illegal drug.

Rebuilding - or at least maintaining - good relations with Bolivia would certainly be in our best interests. Venezuela is clearly antagonistic towards the US, and Chavez has considerable influence in the region. He successfully rallied other Latin American countries at the last summit, preventing any decision on a free trade agreement being pushed by the US. Stemming the tide of nations gravitating towards Venezuela is essential if we are to maintain good relations with South American, and Bolivia is a good starting point given Morales overtures.

If coca is the only stumbling block, and it would appear that it is, then it seems foolish to allow that trivial issue to prevent another domino from falling in Chavez's game of power. Rather, it would make more sense to ally ourselves with Morales in a campaign to prevent cocaine trafficking from Bolivia while not attempting to ban a crop that is central to the Bolivian economy. It's the end product we object to anyway, not the traditional uses for the leaf.

Gaining that foothold in Bolivia would also set the stage for a similar bid in Peru, a much larger grower of coca and also another Latin American nation that exports tons of cocaine. With Peruvian elections scheduled for later this year, we need to ensure that there is not additional momentum for another nation to fall under Chavez' sway.

Hearing Morales state that he would have visited the US had he been invited was very reminiscent of the exchange between Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin that launched the 1978 peace accords between Israel and Egypt. As you may recall, Sadat was asked why he had never visited Israel and his response was simply that he had never been invited. That paved the way for mutual invitations and lead to the historic summit at Camp David.

Morales has floated the subtle offer. All it would take now is to extend the invitation. There's no harm in talking and we have all of South America to gain. Extend the invitation. It's in our best interests to do so.


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