HAVANA – Fidel Castro and Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales say cooperation between their countries will bloom despite U.S. worries about more nations allying with communist Cuba and a growing leftward tilt in Latin American politics.
The two men late Friday announced a 30-month plan to erase illiteracy in Bolivia, the latest move by left-leaning South American leaders calling for increased cooperation among nations in the region without U.S. influence.
Cuba also agreed to offer free eye operations to up to 50,000 needy Bolivians as well as 5,000 full scholarships for young Bolivians to study medicine on the island.
"Could it be that the government of the United States feels hurt that Cuba cooperates with a brother nation?" Castro said. "Does that offend the U.S. government ... is it antidemocratic, is it a crime?"
Morales, 46, said he would not allow himself to be pressured by Washington while in power. "I never had good relations with the United States, but rather with the American people," he said.
Morales, a coca farmer and left-wing activist, says he won't resume the U.S.-backed coca eradication campaign in Bolivia. But he has vowed to crack down on drug trafficking while promoting legal markets for coca leaf, which is used to make cocaine but has medicinal and other legal uses in Bolivia.
Castro and another close ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, have over the past year launched plans to share programs in social cooperation among countries in the region while rejecting a U.S.-backed plan for hemispheric free trade. Washington has expressed concern about their growing alliance.
Speaking to about 400 young Bolivians already studying in Cuba under full scholarships from Castro's government, the two leaders did not spell out details of the literacy plan.
But Cuba has launched similar programs in other countries, most recently Venezuela, sending Cuban advisers with educational materials to work with local instructors to teach reading and writing to disadvantaged people.
Cuba carried out its own literacy program in the first years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power, sending young teachers into poor regions in the island's mountains and other remote areas.
Among the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America, Bolivia nonetheless has a literacy rate of more than 87 percent.
"We have agreed to the first measures of cooperation," Morales said, adding that his meetings with Castro Friday were "an encounter of two generations in the struggle for dignity."
Castro is the first head of state visited by Morales as he starts reaching out to other leaders before taking office.
"Our brother Evo possesses all the necessary qualities needed to lead his country," said Castro, who sported a miner's hard hat given to him by Bolivian mining union leaders who traveled with Morales to Cuba.
Although he won't be inaugurated until Jan. 22, Morales was welcomed by a red carpet, a military band and a smiling Castro when he stepped off the Cuban plane that brought him from Bolivia.
Castro, dressed in his typical olive green uniform, welcomed Morales' election as an important triumph over U.S. influence in the region.
"The map is changing," said the 79-year-old Cuban leader, who marks 47 years in power on New Year's Day.
Morales won the presidency Dec. 18 with nearly 54 percent of the vote — the most support for any Bolivian president since democracy was restored there two decades ago.
He left Cuba on Saturday to be back in Bolivia in time for a New Year's Eve celebration in his hometown of Orinoca. On Jan. 3, he departs on a world tour that will include Spain, France, Brussels, the Netherlands, South Africa, China and Brazil.