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SPAIN: Debt Write-Off, Development Funds for Bolivia

Tito Drago

MADRID, Sep 15 2009 (IPS) - Bolivian President Evo Morales wound up a three-day official visit to Spain Tuesday with a financial aid commitment from the Spanish government – in the form of a debt-for-development swap – and a reciprocal agreement to allow Bolivians and Spaniards resident in each other’s countries to vote in local elections.

The administration of socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero wrote off 60 percent of Bolivia’s total debt of some 85 million dollars. The outstanding 40 percent will go into a “Bolivia-Spain Fund” to finance development projects in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America.

Under the law governing Spanish cooperation, the fund will be used to contribute to economic growth and social development in Bolivia, through education and sustainable development projects and poverty reduction programmes.

A binational committee was created Tuesday to oversee implementation of the agreements.

At a press conference, Zapatero announced two development projects in Bolivia: “a water fund that will benefit the people of 45 Bolivian municipalities, and a project to support professional development among young people.”

The prime minister said that the second project would “make training available for young people and the unemployed in rural areas.”

Thus Bolivia remains a prominent beneficiary of Spanish development aid. Between 2006 and 2008, Bolivia received a total of 157 million euros (220 million dollars) in aid from Spain, more than from any other country.

Morales expressed appreciation for the role of the Spanish government in extending legal status to Bolivian immigrants living in Spain, saying: “What Spain has done to issue legal documents to Bolivians who live here deserves recognition. It has done this for over 100,000 people, more than the number of Bolivians who have legal status in the countries of Latin America,” where thousands more Bolivians have migrated.

Morales also emphasised that Spain is the only country to grant Bolivians the right to vote in municipal elections, which Spanish citizens will also be able to do in Bolivia, although the agreement is pending parliamentary approval in both countries.

According to the Spanish Foreign Ministry, there are an estimated 250,000 Bolivians living in Spain, only 98,000 of whom are legal residents.

Morales rejected criticism from the centre-right Popular Party, in power in Madrid, and from Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who described the pro-indigenous policies he has put into force as “totalitarian.”

Quite the opposite, said Morales. Indigenous peoples have “a culture of dialogue and friendliness,” and their movement is open to cooperation and inclusive participation.

Morales, an ethnic Aymara and head of the left-wing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, began his political career as the leader of the coca farmers union. He is the first indigenous president of Bolivia, where around 60 percent of the population of 9.3 million are indigenous people.

The centre-right head of Madrid’s regional government, Esperanza Aguirre, said in a television interview that populism and the pro-indigenous movement were the opposite of the “freedom and democracy” Bolivians want.

Vargas Llosa, for his part, said the Spanish government was “very naïve if it thinks that pragmatism and supporting Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will prevent its companies from being expropriated.”

Spanish companies and investments were a focus in all of the Bolivian president’s meetings with government representatives, but instead of provoking conflicts, mutual commitments to resolving problems through dialogue prevailed.

With respect to the most controversial of these problems, involving Spanish energy giant Repsol, Morales was explicit: “We talked a lot about the issue of investments and Repsol, and the head of the company will shortly be visiting Bolivia to secure new agreements.”

The visiting president was warmly welcomed Sunday by thousands of Bolivians who gathered at a rally convened by more than 60 political, social and union organisations, held at the La Cubierta bull ring in the municipality of Leganés, on the outskirts of Madrid.

The event began with the Ck’oa ceremony, blessing Pachamama (Mother Earth), followed by traditional Quechua dances. Multicoloured Inca flags were waved amongst the crowd, and placards proclaiming electoral support for Morales, who according to the polls is a shoo-in for reelection in December, were prominently displayed.

In his speech at Leganés, Morales spoke out against foreign meddling in his country and declared “permanent rebellion against the looting of natural resources and the oppression of the people.” This statement, in particular, was much criticised by the local press, which said it was in contradiction to his request for more foreign investment in Bolivia.

While he made no comments about the United States’ military bases in Spain, saying only “they must be different over here,” Morales did complain about U.S. bases in the Americas.

Referring to the agreement under which Colombia will lend seven bases to the United States, he said “where there are military bases, there is no peace,” and called for the closure of existing bases and for no more to be built.

Installing military bases is “a pretext of the empire (the United States) to control natural resources,” which he said must be defended, not only so they do not fall into the hands of “the empire,” but also to preserve the ecological balance.

Turning to the continued difficulties in his country, he alluded to Bolivia’s history as a colony of Spain. He told the crowds: “We need revolutionaries at the service of the Bolivian people, and they are still hard to find, because there is still a colonial mentality, a legacy of looting and exploitation of the land.”

At the Leganés bull ring, Hugo González, a Bolivian immigrant living in Madrid, told IPS that “the World Hero of Mother Earth (a title recently awarded to Morales by the United Nations) is giving us back our confidence in our country.”

“His presence here fills us with longing to go back and be able to live there in peace and prosperity. We hope it will be soon,” he said.

Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón of the Popular Party welcomed Morales and handed him the key to the city, a very rare honour for foreign dignitaries.

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