Chavez, Castro Figure in Election; Voters Seen Favoring Moderates

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Byline: Martin Arostegui, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia - The influence of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro on Bolivia's left has become a central issue in the country's fractious election battle, pitting the Indian-led Movement to Socialism (MAS) against various conservative candidates.

The elections, scheduled for December, were called in June when violent protests organized by MAS and other leftist groups paralyzed the country and forced the resignation of President Carlos Mesa.

Beginning his presidential bid last month, center-right front-runner Jorge Quiroga accused MAS leader Evo Morales of being an "agent for Venezuela's brazen interference in the internal affairs of Bolivia."

Mr. Quiroga said that Mr. Chavez and Mr. Castro had a "regional plan" to "destabilize" South America.

Mr. Morales lashed back by accusing Mr. Quiroga of "following orders from [President] Bush."

Charges of Venezuelan interference are based in part on a meeting last month in Caracas between Mr. Morales and Mr. Chavez. The talks also were attended by Felipe Quispe, the extremist head of the Pachacuti Indigenous Movement (MIP).

While MAS and MIP cooperated in the sometimes-violent protests that have ousted two Bolivian presidents since 2003, Mr. Quispe and Mr. Morales are rivals for the support of Indian constituencies in the high Andes. Yet, shortly after their return from Venezuela, Mr. Morales named a one-time close aide to Mr. Quispe, Alvaro Garcia Linera, as his running mate.

In accepting the nomination, Mr. Garcia vowed to campaign for full nationalization of Bolivia's oil and gas resources and for a new constitution favored by MAS.

While he recently has become known as a socialist opinion leader and television pundit, Mr. Garcia Linera faces legal charges involving past activity with the terrorist Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army.

One of the leading conservative candidates, businessman Samuel Doria Medina, once was kidnapped by the EGTK, which obtained a $5 million ransom negotiated through the London firm Control Risks. …