LA PAZ, Bolivia – Praising Fidel Castro as a model, Bolivia's president-elect arrived Monday in Venezuela for a meeting with leftist leader Hugo Chavez, who said the nationalization of Bolivia's oil and natural gas was high on the agenda.
Evo Morales arrived in Caracas aboard a Cuban jet and said he and Chavez were uniting in a "fight against neoliberalism and imperialism."
"We are here to resolve social problems, economic problems," said Morales, an Aymara Indian coca farmer who has pledged to renegotiate international contracts to extract his country's vast natural gas reserves — the second-largest in South America after Venezuela's.
"This movement is not only in Bolivia," he said. "Fidel in Cuba and Hugo in Venezuela are logging triumphs in social movements and leftist policies."
Chavez said the two leaders would discuss the nationalization of Bolivia's oil and gas resources — a campaign issue for Morales. Morales has said the country's natural gas reserves have been "looted," current contracts must be re-negotiated and national resources placed under state ownership. He also has said he would not take over foreign oil and gas companies operating in Bolivia.
Morales is on the first leg of a tour that will take him to Europe, South Africa, China and Brazil. The United States is notably not on the agenda.
Morales, who vowed during his campaign to be Washington's "nightmare," is willing to visit the U.S. but hasn't been invited, his spokesman, Alex Contreras, said.
After Castro, Chavez is the second foreign leader to meet the newly elected Morales, a sign of a growing relationship between the three leftist leaders that has concerned Washington. Contreras called the three "an axis of good."
"We are going to change Bolivia; we are going to change Latin America," Morales said Tuesday.
Morales plans to use the tour to drum up support for his incoming government — the first headed by an Indian in Bolivia's 180-year history — and also to show he can hold his own on the world stage.
Chavez, a strident critic of U.S.-style capitalism, already has promised financial aid to Bolivia. The Venezuelan leader says he is leading a socialist revolution and has taken increasing control of the oil and gas industry; reworking contracts with private oil companies and sharply raising royalties and taxes.
High oil prices and the greater share of industry profits have allowed him to fund growing social programs.
Morales' opposition to U.S.-led efforts to eradicate coca cultivation in his Andean nation also have alarmed Washington. Coca is the source of cocaine but Bolivia's Indians also use it for hunger suppression and medicinal purposes.
Morales tended llamas as a young boy and rose to power at the head of street demonstrations that toppled two presidents, demanding that more power held by the country's long-ruling lighter-skinned elite move to Bolivia's poor Indian majority.
Morales has toned down some of his fiery campaign rhetoric since his election last month, promising Bolivia's business leaders that he will create a climate favorable to foreign investment and jobs.
After Venezuela, Morales is due to visit Spain and France. France's Total SA and the Spanish-Argentine Repsol YPF SA are among foreign oil companies with big investments in Bolivia.
Morales also will meet in Brussels with officials from the European Union, then stop in South Africa, China and Brazil.