Evo Morales, an indigenous leader and candidate of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is favored to win Bolivia’s presidential elections on Dec. 18.

His party and a coalition of popular forces are calling for the nationalization of natural resources and formation of a constituent assembly to consider indigenous rights and land reform. Landless peasants, coca farmers, the urban poor and indigenous people have built a movement that opposes foreign intervention and transnational corporations.

Eighty percent of Bolivia’s population is indigenous, and Bolivia possesses large natural gas reserves.

On Nov. 4, Morales joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez before 40,000 people attending a “Counter Summit” in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where the Summit of the Americas was taking place. President Bush departed that session at a loss, specifically over the failed prospects of so-called free trade for the hemisphere. Bolivia, with Morales as president, would be joining a growing coalition of South American nations, led by the left, that is resisting U.S. hegemony.

British writer John Pilger, reporting from South America, set the stage: “In 2000, open rebellion burst upon the white business oligarchs [in Bolivia]. … There was never anything like it, because it came from the majority Indian population.”

Five years ago, hundreds of thousands of protesters forced the Bechtel Company to give up on privatizing drinking water supplies in Bolivia. In October 2003, reacting to a prospective sell-off of natural gas rights to U.S. corporations, mass demonstrations sent President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada into exile, but not before his troops killed over 70 demonstrators.

In 2004, a law was passed that strengthened the government’s role in the oil and gas industry and taxed hydrocarbon production at 50 percent of revenues. Slow implementation provoked demonstrations that peaked in May and June 2005, forcing President Carlos Mesa to resign. An interim president called for the new elections.

The parties opposing Morales derive support from Europeanized middle- and upper-class sectors. They are strong particularly in Bolivia’s eastern province of Santa Cruz, where significant natural gas reserves are located. The region is home to a well-organized movement for provincial autonomy and to the Radical National Socialist Union of Bolivia, a fascist group. Several transnational corporations are headquartered there also.

When Morales ran for the presidency in 2002, the U.S. ambassador warned that if he won, U.S. economic ties to Bolivia might be cut. The threat backfired: Morales’ vote rose to within 1.5 percent of the winner’s tally.

While Morales’ politics have certainly been left-of-center, some left-wing labor and political groups have criticized him for what they see as his unnecessary compromises with right-wing political parties and his ambivalence on nationalization.

Washington is nervous, however. This year the U.S. ambassador compared Morales to Osama bin Laden. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, visiting Paraguay on Aug. 16, commented on “evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways.”

Rumsfeld’s words on Bolivia are significant, not least because 500 fully equipped U.S. troops arrived July 1 at a military base located in Paraguay, 120 miles from the border with Bolivia, specifically near Santa Cruz. The base at Mariscal Estigarribia has long runways and can house 16,000 troops.

Paraguay, enticed by promises of economic aid, exempted U.S. troops from criminal prosecution in Paraguayan courts and the International Criminal Court. U.S. troops were granted an 18-month stay, to be extended automatically. The previous limit was six months. The FBI will be opening an office in Paraguay’s capital.

The U.S. government says that the troops will be undertaking “humanitarian” missions. Another claim is that U.S. troops will be “fighting terrorism” by leaning on “terrorist-supporting Middle Eastern immigrants” living in the region. Analysts speculate that Washington wants to prod Paraguay into serving U.S. ends within Mercosur, the increasingly independent South American trade alliance.

But who would deny that U.S. troops in Paraguay have something to do with Bolivia? Certainly not a U.S. Defense Department official who last summer said, “You have a revolution going on in Bolivia, a revolution that potentially could have consequences as far reaching as the Cuban revolution of 1959.” Quoted in the New York Times Magazine, Roger Pardo-Maurer IV warned of “repercussions in Latin America and elsewhere that you could be dealing with for the rest of our lives.”

atwhit at megalink.net