Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) won an absolute majority in the Bolivian presidential elections Dec. 18. He will be sworn in on Jan. 22.

Morales comes from the Aymara ethnic group, who, with the Quechuas and others, form the majority of the Bolivian population, but who have been excluded from access to political power up to now and who are mostly very poor. Morales has promised to reverse the neoliberal, “free trade” economic policies implemented by his predecessors.

Morales would like to out Bolivia’s large natural gas supplies under national control and use the profits from their sale to uplift the impoverished majority, as Hugo Chávez has used Venezuela’s national oil profits. As in the case of Chávez, the Bolivian elites protest this and are even threatening to make the gas-rich areas secede from Bolivia.

Furthermore, Morales has stated that he will withdraw from a U.S.-sponsored program for the eradication of the cultivation of coca leaf. This plant has been used locally as a medicine and condiment for centuries, but is also the main ingredient of cocaine. The efforts to eradicate coca leaf cultivation have caused widespread hardship to the already poor indigenous farmers in the whole Andean region.

In Bolivia, whose tin mining industry’s collapse left many communities with little alternative other than coca farming, the results have been particularly devastating. Morales promises that he will not allow cocaine production for export, but this is unlikely to deflect U.S. pressure and criticism.

Morales’ election means that most of South America is now ruled by left-of-center governments, including Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. In next year’s elections, it is likely that Mexico and perhaps other countries will also elect left-wing governments. These are social democratic or populist-nationalist regimes, not Marxist-Leninist ones, but they nevertheless thwart U.S. policy in the area by backing off from the programs of privatization, free trade, austerity and repression mandated by the IMF and World Bank and especially by the Bush administration.

So the White House sees them as messing with the interests of their favorite corporations. What are Bush and his cronies likely to do about this?

My guess is that they will do at least as much to destabilize and overthrow Morales as they have already done to Chávez of Venezuela. The destabilization effort is under way.

Earlier this year, the U.S. got the government of Paraguay to agree to a U.S. military presence in the Paraguayan Chaco region, bordering on Bolivia and in particular on Bolivia’s main natural gas reserves. The pretext is that there allegedly may be Al Qaeda elements among Arab immigrants in the region, which also borders on Argentina. An initial group of 400 U.S. Marines are in the process of being sent to Paraguay, but the type of military facilities being constructed there suggests that capacity for a much larger force is being prepared.

Those of us who have followed these situations in the past will recognize the pattern. The border area will be full of CIA agents, contractor-mercenaries and other dangerous wildlife, who will operate without any kind of accountability to either the U.S. or the Paraguayan people. Bad things will start to happen, including provocations designed to justify a larger U.S. intervention.

A massive misinformation campaign about Morales and Bolivia is already under way. His statements critical of the U.S. are being highlighted in the mass media without context, so as to give the impression that he is an “anti-American wild man.”

His position on coca leaf cultivation will be misrepresented, and not only in the ultra-right media, in an effort to depict him as a “drug dealer.”

When the U.S. attempted to overthrow Chávez of Venezuela in 2002, left and progressive forces in this country did not respond quickly enough. When, in 2004, the U.S. and France overthrew President Aristide of Haiti and set up a puppet regime, we were once again not ready and there was only minimal protest in the United States.

We must immediately counter the lies about Morales and shine a light on the U.S. schemes to oust him, and not be taken by surprise when Bush makes his move.