Don't do Chávez a favor in Bolivia

Anti-Washington feelings run deep in Latin America, and the US would only strengthen the likes of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez by challenging Bolivia's newly elected president, Evo Morales. To govern, socialists like him may need a bullying Yanqui.

The Bush administration must sit tight, and wait to see if Mr. Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president and the first to win more than 50 percent of the vote, can actually hold his troubled Andes nation together.

And it must see if this former street protester who toppled a president can fulfill promises to protect the growers of coca (the raw material for cocaine) from the US-funded eradication program and whether he'll take control of Bolivia's natural gas fields (the world's sixth largest), now run by firms from friendly nations such as Brazil and Spain.

Up to now, the US has painted Morales - who says he is Washington's "nightmare" - as a 21st-century Che Guevara, tapping urban rage and ethnic resentments to ignite a peasant revolution, with possible consequences like those from the 1959 takeover of Cuba by Fidel Castro. The US shouldn't confuse Morales's old- fashioned populist rhetoric with his likely realpolitik governance.

To use cold-war-style containment and confrontation of leftist leaders can easily backfire in today's more globalized, freer world, where creating jobs by market means is job No. 1 for any leader. Over the past decade, bumbling US reactions to Mr. Chávez's anti-US statements have only bolstered his popularity in the region, allowing him to thwart Venezuela's democracy and misuse its oil wealth for political gain.

The Bush administration reacted calmly to Brazil's 2002 election of socialist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, creating a working relationship with him as he adopted centrist policies.

But the US may see Bolivia differently from Brazil because it exports cocaine and has abundant gas fields. Bolivia is also South America's poorest nation, with more than half of its population of Indian descent, as Morales is. The US holds big leverage over Bolivia, with trade preferences for its textiles, with sizable aid, and with influence over international finance. The US should use that power, and rhetoric, sparingly, if at all, to nudge Morales to keep Bolivia's open-market policies while hoping he uses petroleum wealth fairly for broad economic growth.

After his victory on Monday, Morales already appeared the moderate, for instance backtracking on letting farmers grow coca freely. He said his platform is "not about conquering, it's about convincing, persuading about our concrete proposals with transparency and honesty."

Morales can hardly afford to let Bolivia become a drug-cartel haven, as the US worries he might. He has too many domestic demands to curb poverty to afford that downward path. Since he lacks political control over the legislature and most regions, the US should not give him a reason to grab more power by threatening him with sanctions.

Many Latin America nations may also elect leftists. Their people are unhappy that open markets haven't curbed corruption or sharp disparities of wealth. The US must be empathetic, and work carefully with that trend, not belligerently.

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