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Bolivia's future riding on Morales

Bolivian President Evo Morales greets a young girl in Tarija, Bolivia.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Leftist leaders in Latin America like to stick together, I guess.

Bolivian president Evo Morales was in Cuba a couple of weeks ago, and he stopped in to see Fidel Castro while he was there. In an interview today, Morales said Fidel's basically back to full-time work after his health problems of the past year.

Morales himself was elected a year and a half ago. Since then, he's raised taxes on foreign oil companies, he's started a massive land redistribution program, and he's gotten a chunk of the country so angry, it's threatening to secede. Mary Stucky reports.


Mary Stucky: Bolivia is South America's poorest country. From the slums of Cochabamba in the windswept highlands, or Altiplano, to the tropical lowland jungles, Bolivia's indigenous majority is still celebrating the election of Evo Morales as the country's first indigenous president.

Roxana Argandona campaigned for Morales and remembers the excitement of election night:

Roxana Argandona (voice of interpreter): We were all together waiting, listening to the radio to see if we were going to win or lose. And when we heard that Morales had won, we felt really proud. And we thought, "Well, Bolivia is finally going to change."

Things did change. Morales renegotiated contracts with foreign oil companies, raising six times more revenue for the government — money that's earmarked for the poor.

While Bolivians applauded this move, neighboring Brazil was nervous. That's because Brazil relies on Bolivia for much of its natural gas.

But relations calmed after Bolivia pledged to supply affordable gas to Brazil. And now, for the first time in 30 years, Bolivia has a budget surplus — and a lot of interest from investors.

Saul Escolera: Right now I have in this office — look at all the pile of proposals. I have 22 project proposals that are worth, all together, $12 billion investment.

Saul Escolera heads a government economic development agency, and says Bolivia is enjoying new economic clout in the region — from a $2 billion investment by an Indian company to build an iron ore plant to a Brazilian firm planning to invest $50 million in a high-tech biodiesel mill.

Next up: land reform. Morales pledged to seize land from the rich and give it to the poor.

Wilfor Colque Caceres is a leader in the MST, the Movement for People Without Land:

Wilfor Colque Caceres (voice of interpreter): The vision of MST is to live in our settlements with our families in a dignified way.

But rich land owners, mostly in the tropical east, are putting up a fight — reportedly arming themselves to defend their land.

And staging protests, like this one in Santa Cruz — where they're so upset with Morales that they're threatening to secede from the country. These divisions erupted in Cochabamba in January, when two people died in street battles.

Amanda Penaranda is a teacher in Cochabamba. Like many in the Bolivian middle class, she supported Morales at first.

Amanda Penaranda: I say, "Oh, maybe it's the change that we really need," And I say, "Finally, we're gonna have peace and work and everything will be fine." But now, I believe that we are in serious danger.

Danger, says Penaranda, from the influence of Venezuela's leftist leader, Hugo Chavez. Venezuela alone is giving almost 50 million to the Bolvian military, raising concerns that Bolivia is becoming a client state of Venezuela.

Cuba is also giving money and aid to the region. Not a bad thing, according to Roxana Argondona, if it means help with her country's vast humanitarian needs.

Argondana: These solar panels are donations from Cuba. We're taking the solar panels to the communities where there's no electricity, so that the men and women there can learn to read when it's dark.

Reading is one thing, jobs are another. Even though the economy's growing, the money isn't going to poor, unskilled workers.

Every day, there are long lines at immigration — people trying to leave the country for work. Jorge Alfonzo is heading to Spain.

Jorge Alfonzo (voice of interpreter): I make $250 U.S. a month, more or less. Never more. There isn't much work here, that's the problem.

It's up to Morales to figure out how that growing economy can benefit the poor, says Bolivian economist Edgar Guardia.

Edgar Guardia: I think still, right now, our best bet is still Evo. That's the dilemma for this country. We don't have enough, we don't have a plan B.

No plan B — that is, no plan B to hold the country together.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia, I'm Mary Stucky for Marketplace.

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