Monica Machicao / Eduardo Garcia
The Miami Herald
October 12, 2007
LA PAZ (Reuters) - Police cars, helicopters, radio stations, health clinics and fertilizer -- the deep pockets of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez benefit leftist allies and the poor from Bolivia to Nicaragua, but rankle opposition leaders.
Chavez is using Venezuela's soaring oil revenues to spread aid to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina and especially to Bolivia, where he has helped President Evo Morales meet social spending promises to the indigenous majority that elected him in 2005.
A vociferous U.S. critic, Chavez aims to counter Washington's influence in Latin America and lead a growing bloc of left-wing leaders who, like him, have moved to increase state control over some industries.
"Venezuela cannot be but at the service of Bolivia , at the service of the Bolivian government and its people," Chavez told Morales on a recent visit to Venezuela. "Evo, we are here on guard like soldiers for Bolivia."
Chavez has sent cash and advisors to sponsor two of Morales' key reforms, nationalizing the natural gas industry and overhauling the constitution.
Venezuela has also paid for scores of infrastructure projects, given hundreds of tractors to poor farmers, donated vehicles to the cash-strapped police and financed an archeology project and radio stations, many of which broadcast in endangered indigenous languages.
Morales, who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, has formed a close bond with Chavez, calling him "an older brother." That has upset Bolivia's rightist opposition.
"It is a flagrant attack on the sovereignty and dignity of this country and Mr. Chavez is acting like he's our owner," said opposition leader and former presidential candidate Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga.
Morales has Venezuelans on his security staff, he often travels in helicopters loaned by Venezuela, and last year he and Chavez signed a controversial deal under which Venezuela agreed to fund the construction of Bolivian army posts.
Critics say Morales has repaid Chavez by joining him and Cuban leader Fidel Castro in attacking U.S. policies in Latin America and criticizing Brazil's biofuels industry.
Morales insists he is no puppet of any foreign leader and some analysts say he has remained independent on key policies.
"I haven't seen any moves by Bolivia's foreign ministry, apart from a few run-ins with Brazil, that may show that he (Morales) is following orders from Venezuela," said political analyst Gonzalo Mendieta.
While Bolivia is the main showcase of Venezuelan aid, Chavez is also spreading his money elsewhere. He sends oil to communist Cuba in return for medical services, including 20,000 doctors and medical personnel posted in Venezuela.
Chavez has promised to help build a $4 billion oil refinery in Ecuador and signed a deal to exchange Ecuadorean heavy crude for Venezuelan diesel.
Venezuela has also pledged energy investments in Argentina and purchased some $5 billion of Argentine government bonds at a time when the country's access to international markets was limited by leftover problems from its huge 2002 default.
In Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, Venezuela provides cheap fuel, medical missions, fertilizer and tractors.
Nicaragua's rightist opposition says the Venezuelan aid is being used as a political weapon by Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist revolutionary who led Nicaragua during the 1980s and returned to power in a presidential election late last year.
Beneficiaries see the aid as altruistic.
"Without Venezuelan help, our energy situation would be a catastrophe," said Luis Fuentes, a 45-year-old office worker, referring to frequent black-outs in Nicaragua due to high fuel costs and insufficient generation.
In La Paz, Luciana de Pari, a 40-year-old street vendor, praised a Venezuela-sponsored literacy program.
"Bolivia says thanks to Mr. Evo Morales. Because of him we have learned how to read ... we didn't know how to," she said.
A network of Venezuela and Cuba-run eye hospitals is popular not only in Bolivia but also in neighboring Peru.
"It's really an excellent campaign and I think on a Latin American level they have to make this type of projects permanent and in a more unified way," said Victor Choque, who traveled from Peru to have a free eyesight check at a clinic on the shores of Lake Titicaca.