BRASILIA, Brazil – Bolivia’s president-elect ended an around-the-world tour Friday with a promise to respect foreign investments and not to nationalize the Bolivian operations of Brazil’s state-run oil company.
Talks between President-elect Evo Morales and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva focused on natural gas and the future of oil investments in Bolivia. But the meeting of two former leftist labor leaders who rose from poverty to the presidency could have broader implications for Latin America, analysts said.
At the end of their two-hour meeting, Morales seemed inclined to take a business-friendly approach to negotiations with Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras – one of Bolivia’s largest foreign investors – but with an emphasis on improving life for Bolivia’s poor.
“As with any country, we have the right to manage our own resources. This doesn’t mean expelling foreign companies or expropriating foreign property,” Morales said at a news conference after the meeting. “Foreign companies have every right to recover investments and make profits, but profits should be balanced.”
During his campaign, Morales threatened to privatize foreign oil companies operating in Bolivia.
On Friday, Morales struck a more conciliatory tone and said he would look to Silva for guidance after he takes office Jan. 22 as Bolivia’s first Indian president.
“I haven’t come here to ask for anything, just for advice and orientation. I told him (Silva) I will pick up the telephone and ask, ‘How do I solve this problem?”’ Morales said. “He is a great companion of mine. As a Latin American, he is my brother.”
Observers said the meeting would provide an important indication of whether Morales will take his country down a market-friendly path or push a more radical agenda.
“The U.S. would welcome any initiative to control this leftist leadership,” said David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia. “If you look out over South America, the only country that is a staunch supporter is Colombia. The rest are lukewarm to say the least.”
Fleischer said Morales’ victory in Bolivia could boost leftist candidates in this year’s elections in Peru and Ecuador.
At first glance, Morales, a former leader of the coca growers union, seems a natural ally of leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
He rose to power leading protests, as Bolivia’s poor became disillusioned with free-market reforms and the privatization of everything from oil to water.
But since his election in December, Morales has suggested he may take a more pragmatic, business-friendly stance – much as Silva did after his election in 2002. Morales arrived in Brazil after a 10-day world tour that took Europe, China and South Africa, during which he repeatedly pledged respect for private investment and asked for cooperation to fight rampant poverty that affects two-thirds of Bolivia’s 8 million people.
But some Bolivians were left puzzled.
Analyst and TV commentator Cayetano Llobet said Morales’ trip stirred media attention worldwide but did not clarify the new leader’s ideas or the type of government he will run.
“Nobody could say what concrete results came out if his tour. I would rather wait to see what happens,” he said.
Morales’ meeting with Silva was expected to lay the groundwork for massive Brazilian investment in petrochemical plants, gas pipelines and highways.
On Thursday, Bolivian Vice President-elect Alvaro García Linera said the government will renegotiate contracts with foreign oil companies to ensure Bolivia retains 50 percent of all oil and gas royalties. But he said agreement would be reached through consensus.
“We will not make unilateral decisions. All decisions will be made through dialogue,” García Linera said.
Answering a question about allegations by Chávez that the United States will try to destabilize the new government, Morales said he didn’t doubt some agencies and governments would try to sabotage his administration. But he gave no indication on what he based this suspicion.
Another prickly area for Bolivia is the production of coca, the raw material for cocaine. Morales said he would end U.S.-supported coca eradication programs, but he also pledged to be tough on drug trafficking. AP