MADRID – Bolivia’s President-Elect Evo Morales said he aims to be a democratic version of the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara and stop companies’ “illegal” operations as he embarks on a program to lift Bolivians out of poverty.
“The only difference with Che Guevara is that he used arms,” Morales said at a press conference in Madrid late last night. “We don’t want to change things with bullets, but with votes.”
Morales, a Bolivian coca-farmers’ leader, was elected president in a Dec. 18 poll pledging to challenge U.S. influence in Latin America and take more control of the country’s oil and gas resources.
He has forged alliances with Cuba’s Communist leader Fidel Castro, who fought alongside Guevara in the Cuban revolution, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
Morales said he will use Bolivia’s oil and natural gas resources to benefit the majority of the Bolivian people as he bids to raise living standards in Latin America’s poorest country.
Some oil companies smuggle Bolivian oil and gas into neighboring countries rather than sell in Bolivia where prices are controlled, Morales said.
Shortages of gas for cooking in the capital La Paz led to unrest that helped bring down the previous government.
“We will be radical with petrol companies that don’t obey Bolivian law, that don’t pay taxes and are smugglers,” he said. “Bolivia needs partners among private companies, not owners of our natural resources.”
Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero promised to write-off the majority of Bolivia’s $120 million debts to Spain to help finance education and to provide support for irrigation projects at a meeting with Morales.
Zapatero’s spokesman Fernando Moraleda said the Spanish government is convinced that the new Bolivian government’s plans will be “compatible with the interests of Spanish businesses.”
Repsol YPF SA, Spain’s fourth biggest company, is Bolivia’s biggest investor with about $1.2 billion of assets in the country. Repsol YPF shares closed little changed, gaining 0.1 percent to 25.71 euros.
Zapatero has provided support to other Latin American leaders led by Chávez who have declared their antagonism to the U.S. He provoked criticism from Spain’s opposition People’s Party by approving the sale of military boats and aircraft to Venezuela last November. Chávez is using his country’s oil wealth to strengthen relations with other Latin American countries.
He helped out Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner, buying $337 million of Argentine government bonds Oct. 26 after investment banks Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., declined to take up the offering.
He also promised political and economic support for Bolivia when Morales visited Caracas en route to Spain.
Morales said he will fulfill election commitments to nationalize Bolivia’s energy resources while also looking for partners among businesses willing to work with his government.
“The Venezuelan government is in a very good situation with its petrol revenues and we would like to recover ownership of such revenues,” he said. “My government will exercise its property rights over all its natural resources. We will nationalize. This doesn’t mean that we will conquer, or expropriate, or expel businesses,” he added.
Earlier Spain’s Industry Minister Jose Montilla, who also met with Morales, said it was too early to formulate a clear picture of the President-Elect’s plans because he has yet to put together his cabinet or officially take charge of the country.
“There will certainly be a change in the rules of the game,” Montilla said.
“He was very cautious for reasons I understand. Electoral campaigns are one thing but when you have the responsibility he has in Bolivia it is normal to use more caution.” Bloomberg