Iran's unlikely embrace of Bolivia builds influence in U.S. backyard

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 5, 2009 

ACHACACHI, Bolivia — The government of Iran is following the lead of new ally Venezuela by taking its anti-American message to Bolivia, an impoverished but strategically positioned country in the heart of South America.

A nemesis to U.S. interests in the Middle East for 30 years, Iran is now pouring millions of dollars of aid into Bolivia — including construction of a milk factory in Achacachi. Its real motive, however, is joining Bolivia and Venezuela to counter U.S. interests in Latin America, analysts said.

"Is Iran in Bolivia a nuisance to the United States? Of course it is," said Abbas Milani, the co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "Iran will try to shore up support for Bolivia's president and help the anti-American message of its regime. And being in Bolivia will give Iran more pawns to play in its dealings with the Europeans and the United States."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a constant U.S. critic, brought Iran and Bolivia together, even though the two countries have little in common but natural gas, large stretches of desert and official antipathy toward the U.S. His government flew Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Bolivian President Evo Morales in September 2007. Morales traveled to Iran a year later.

Chavez has organized Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba into a trade and political alliance that regularly lambastes capitalism and U.S. influence in Latin America.

Iran also has begun to assist Ecuador and Nicaragua, and its Latin American activities have prompted worry from the Obama administration.

"I'm concerned about the level of, frankly, subversive activity that the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places in Latin America, particularly South America and Central America," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee on Jan. 27. "They're opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts, behind which they interfere in what is going on in some of these countries."

Obama administration officials — following the lead of the Bush administration — want to isolate Iran because the Islamic Republic sponsors terrorist groups and because of concerns that it's trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Jorge Quiroga, who was Bolivia's president from 2001 to 2002 and lost the 2005 presidential race to Morales, said Iran is benefiting from its investment in Bolivia.

"Iran needs international recognition," Quiroga said in an interview. "It needs to show that it is not an international pariah."

He added, "We have no cultural, historical or commercial ties whatsoever. Bolivia knows nothing about Iran."

Morales is a socialist, an Aymara Indian and a coca-growing farmer. Ahmadinejad is a conservative hard-liner and Holocaust doubter who heads an Islamic Republic.

Morales has joked that he's become part of the "axis of evil."

Bolivia even broke relations with Israel to protest the Gaza invasion — even though Israel doesn't have an ambassador in Bolivia — in apparent solidarity with Iran, an implacable foe of Israel.

A secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Bolivia said on three separate days that no embassy official was available for an interview because an Iranian trade delegation was visiting.

Iran and Bolivia have huge natural gas reserves. They have yet to fulfill pledges to have Iran help Bolivia exploit its gas, however.

In the meantime, some 90 Bolivians are building the Iranian-financed milk factory in Achacachi, a town two hours west of La Paz, the capital.

A few miles away, workers maneuvered wheelbarrows full of wet cement while others hammered away at the half-constructed factory.

Johny Zegarra, the crew foreman, said an Iranian representative had visited the construction site four times over the past month.

Achacachi Mayor Eugenio Rojas said Iran had given $1 million to build a factory that will provide milk, yogurt and cheese to 10,000 poor families.

"We don't ask why Iran is interested," Rojas said. "I've never met anyone from Iran. I know very little about that country. We just want the plant."

The facility is one of six planned for Bolivia, said Lena Rospilloso, an official at the country's Ministry of Production and Small Businesses. She said that the Bolivian government would own and operate each one.

Iran has spent $2.5 million on a hospital for poor people in the city of El Alto to be operated by an Iranian nonprofit group, said Ener Chavez, a Bolivian Ministry of Health spokesman.

Iran is also planning to build two cement plants that the Bolivian government would own and operate, Vice President Alvaro Garcia said in an interview.

"We see this as a medium-term project," Garcia said. "What we want is development and progress."

Morales seems determined to deepen ties with Iran even though doing so will strain already-difficult relations with the U.S.

Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador in September for allegedly conspiring with the opposition. The U.S. then expelled Bolivia's ambassador.

The U.S. and Iran haven't had diplomatic relations since 1980.

"The United States should worry about its own problems," Juan Ramon Quintana, the minister of the presidency, said in an interview. "The Bolivian people define who helps us, not the United States."

The aid from Iran totals only several million dollars so far, a fraction of the money given by Venezuela and the assistance provided by Cuba in the form of teachers and doctors.

Garcia said that Venezuela has given $200 million over the past two years in a program known as "Bolivia Cambia, Evo Cumple," or "Bolivia is changing, Evo is fulfilling his promises."

Morales has given away much of the money by distributing checks from the Venezuelan Embassy to mayors throughout Bolivia to build schools, hospitals, roads.

Venezuela also has sent Bolivia some 300 tractors and 200 ambulances.

Venezuela also has financed 30 radio stations in rural areas that broadcast pro-government propaganda, said Henry Aranciba, an official at the government's National Directorate of Social Communication.

The Venezuelan Embassy in La Paz didn't return phone calls for comment.

Venezuelan money financed the construction of a hospital late last month in Huarina, a town in the Andes some 90 minutes west of La Paz.

Venezuela is even trying to buy La Razon, a La Paz daily newspaper, said Gustavo Torrico, a congressman in the governing party close to Morales, in confirming widespread speculation. La Razon, perhaps the country's most respected newspaper, frequently provokes Morales' ire for its hard-hitting reports. Venezuela also would buy ATB, a leading La Paz television station, Torrico said.

"They want to buy the media to push their ideological aims and help the Bolivian government," Torrico said in an interview.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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