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Bolivia's charge to the left

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With presidential elections in Bolivia on Sunday, Washington is buzzing with talk that another Latin American country may be "lost."

Evo Morales, a former president of Bolivia's coca-growers' union and the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party, is the current front-runner, according to the latest polls. If he wins the election, Mr. Morales will be the latest head of state to join the ranks of the region's burgeoning New Left, already comprised of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. For the Bush administration and conservative pundits, this would qualify as an unmitigated catastrophe.

Bolivia, however, is far from lost. By proposing a new path to development, a Morales administration would offer genuine hope of alleviating endemic hardship and inequality in South America's poorest country. And if spreading democracy is truly the goal of US foreign policy, the United States should welcome such new approaches rather than demanding that other nations elect officials subservient to the views that currently prevail in the White House.

The Bush administration's consistent mistake in dealing with Latin America has been to equate freedom with the pursuit of a rigid program of its preferredeconomic policies. It has valued "free" markets over democratic independence. This stance, not a novel one for US administrations, has repeatedly generated tensions with such progressive leaders as Argentina's Néstor Kirchner, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and Uruguay's Tabaré Vázquez. The administration's most prominent antagonist in the region, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, needs only to point to the White House's early celebration - if not active support - of an antidemocratic coup against him in 2002 to illustrate the thinness of Bush's prodemocracy rhetoric.

In Bolivia, democracy is now set to collide with the economic policies Washington prefers. American oil and gas companies doing business there reaped substantial profits from privatizing the country's gas industry in the early 1990s, and they had high hopes of being able to increase their windfalls by exporting Bolivia's gas to the energy-hungry US market. Corporate gains did not trickle down to Bolivia's poor, however, and massive protests against privatization have forced the resignation of two presidents in two years. They have also made a political star of Morales, a candidate who promises to redirect gas industry profits toward Bolivia's social needs.

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