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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 January 2006, 17:12 GMT
Morales takes to the world stage
By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

The new left-wing President-elect of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has chosen to spend his time before his inauguration on 22 January on a whistle-stop tour of eight countries in four continents.

Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez
Will Evo Morales follow Hugo Chavez's model?
His choice of countries is hugely significant. He has already been to Cuba and Venezuela. Now he is travelling to Spain, France, Belgium, South Africa, China and finally Brazil - but not the United States.

Like his ideological soul mate and friend, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Mr Morales is keen to diversify Bolivia's relations away from a dependence on the US.

Historically, Bolivia's weak economy - the poorest in South America - has made it very vulnerable to US influence.

Mr Morales clearly wants to take advantage of a more multi-polar world to seek aid and investment from other sources than Washington, which has traditionally provided the lion's share of foreign aid.

Venezuelan model

Mr Morales is hoping for a major increase in aid from Spain. But more importantly, Spain is the third largest investor in Bolivia after Brazil and the US.

The major European companies investing in Bolivia's huge gas and oil sector include the Spanish-Argentine company Repsol.

Mr Morales will want to reassure the Spanish government and investors that he does not want to kick out or expropriate the companies. Rather, he wants to change the terms of trade with them so the Bolivian state gets a bigger share of the revenue.

His model may well be what Mr Chavez is doing in Venezuela.

This week, the Chavez government took control of more than 30 oilfields previously operated by private companies prior to their being replaced by joint ventures dominated by Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA.

Coca controversy

Bolivia has the second largest gas reserves in South America after Venezuela.

The visit to South Africa is more about sentiment than business opportunities or aid - Mr Morales has long been an admirer of Nelson Mandela
The French company Total is another major investor in Bolivian gas, and no doubt the company will feature in discussions with French President Jacques Chirac.

What Mr Morales plans to do with Bolivia's excess coca production is bound to form part of the discussions with officials from the European Union in Brussels.

He has said he wants to legalise all Bolivia's coca growing, which is the third largest in the world, but clamp down on cocaine trafficking.

Historically, the EU has put more emphasis than Washington on finding alternatives to coca, rather than putting pressure on Bolivian governments to eradicate it by force.

There are reports that the EU is willing to fund studies to examine what uses Bolivia's coca could be used for other than being turned into cocaine.

Brazilian interests

The visit to South Africa is more about sentiment than business opportunities or aid. Mr Morales has long been an admirer of Nelson Mandela.

Site of a Bolivia gas pipeline
Bolivia has the second largest gas reserves in South America
There are obvious parallels between the two countries. Mr Morales is Bolivia's first indigenous president in a country with the largest number of people who define themselves as Indians in South America.

China is already having a major impact on Latin America's economies, as its rapid economic growth sucks in large amounts of commodities.

But Bolivia has not been able to benefit as much as some of its neighbours like Chile, Brazil and Peru.

So it will be looking to sell more precious metals and soya. China might be able to play a role in developing Bolivia's oil and gas sector, as it is already doing in Venezuela.

Mr Morales wraps his tour up in Brazil - perhaps the most important stage of his tour.

Brazil's state company Petrobras is the largest foreign investor in Bolivia, and Brazil absorbs an estimated two-thirds of Bolivia's gas exports.

Bolivia's richer eastern departments are very linked into the Brazilian economy. President Lula will not want to see any radical measures affecting Brazilian interests, but at the same time he will be keen to have close relations with another left-wing president in the region.

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