Bolivia's President-Elect Plans Cuba Trip

Saying he is an admirer of Fidel Castro, Bolivia’s President-elect Evo Morales said Wednesday he will be visiting Cuba and meeting with its dictator Fidel Castro in Havana on Friday. After the visit, he will return home to attend a celebration in his hometown of Orinoca on New Year’s Day.

Morales also announced in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, he will visit Europe, China, South Africa and Brazil before he assumes the Bolivian presidency on January 22.

Meanwhile, South African President Thabo Mbeki on Wednesday congratulated Morales on his election saying it indicates there is evidence of continuing change in Latin America.

"Your election as the president of Bolivia indicates that the tide of change continues to sweep through Latin America bringing with it the hope of political and economic transformation and development for your country and indeed the region as a whole," Mbeki said.

"As we stand at the brink of a new year, your election brings with it the optimism and glad tidings that 2006 will also usher in the desired fundamental socio-economic changes that your country expects," Mbeki concluded.

On another matter, Morales also announced he is cutting his salary by half when he assumes office. Morales said his cabinet will follow suit and he expects members of Bolivia’s parliament to take pay and other allowance cuts.

Morales believes that in a country as poor as Bolivia, the president and cabinet should share the burden. The saved money, Morales said, will go to social programs, particularly investment in education.

That wasn’t all Morales had to say. Wire service reports from La Paz quoted Juan Ramon Quintana, a member of the Morales’ transition team as saying Morales will reject U.S. economic and military aid if the United States requires continued coca-eradication efforts to get the money.
Morales also plans to withdraw Bolivia’s military from anti-drug efforts and leave the job to police, according to Quintana.

Wire service reports quoted a U.S. Embassy spokesman in La Paz as saying there would be no official comment on the announcement.

Morales also announced he is following through on a campaign promise to nationalize oil and gas in his country and will void at least some contracts held by foreign companies that he said are “looting” Bolivia’s  natural resources.

Morales said he will not confiscate refineries owned by multinational corporations. Instead, his government would renegotiate contracts so that the companies are partners, but not owners, in developing Bolivia’s resources.

“Many of these contracts signed by various governments are illegal and unconstitutional. It is not possible that our natural resources continue to be looted, exploited illegally, and as the lawyers say, these contracts are legally void and must be adjusted,” Morales said.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration says Bolivia has a proven and potential reserve totaling 48.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, second only to Venezuela.

The United States officially congratulated Morales on his recent victory. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington would look to the behavior of the Bolivian government to determine the course of U.S.-Bolivian relations.

“The issue for us is will the new Bolivian government govern democratically? Are they open to co-operation that, in economic terms, will undoubtedly help the Bolivian people, because Bolivia cannot be isolated from the international economy?” Rice said in a recent CNN interview.