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Morales Is The Favorite In Bolivia Elections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For years, Bolivia was South America's poorest country. Now it seems to be thriving. Today, Bolivia holds presidential elections. President Evo Morales is seeking a third term, and voters seem likely to give it to him. He has nationalized the oil-and-gas industry and tried to raise living standards. Along the way, he's also butted heads with the United States over drug enforcement policies. From the capital of La Paz, John Otis has the story of a former coca farmer turned president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVO MORALES: (Foreign language spoken).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: It was a historic moment in 2006 when Evo Morales was sworn in as president. Morales became Bolivia's first president of indigenous descent in a country where the majority of the population consists of Aymara and Quechua Indians. But Morales is the son of peasants who led Bolivia's largest union for growers of coca, a plant that can be turned into cocaine. He lacks formal economic training, which is why many predicted he would flounder. Instead, Morales has flourished.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORALES: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: His masterstroke came on May Day 2006 when he announced the partial nationalization of Bolivia's natural gas industry. The move brought his government a gusher of new income. The windfall has gone towards new roads and hospitals, as well as cash stipends to help schoolchildren, new mothers and retirees. One of the biggest projects now under construction is a cable car system to connect the capital of La Paz to the bustling mountaintop city of El Alto.

All of this activity has fueled 5 percent annual economic growth under Morales. That's a stark contrast to the 1980s and '90s when Bolivia suffered economic recessions and hyperinflation. Extreme poverty has been cut by half. Morales was reelected in 2009, then pushed through a constitutional amendment allowing him to run for a third term. Ingrid Marino, who sells eggs at a market in El Alto, can attest to the progress. Amid economic chaos in the early 2000s, Marino moved to Argentina to look for work. But Bolivia's economic boom lured her back in 2008.

INGRID MARINO: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: It's no longer necessary to leave the country, she says. Bolivia is doing well. There are jobs here. We don't lack for anything.

AMANDA DAVILA: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Amanda Davila is the government's communications minister. She says President Morales punches the clock from 5 a.m. until midnight and deserves much of the credit for Bolivia's progress. The U.S. government, by contrast, has played almost no role. In 2008, Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador for allegedly conspiring against his government. A month later, Washington cut off trade benefits, claiming Bolivia was not cooperating in the war on drugs.

Relations hit a new low last year amid rumors Morales was smuggling NSA leaker Edward Snowden from Moscow to Bolivia aboard his presidential jet. To block Snowden's escape, U.S. officials convinced several European countries to prohibit Morales's aircraft from landing and refueling. But Snowden was in Moscow all along, and Washington came under fierce criticism for bullying Bolivia.

Critics claim President Morales can also be domineering. His movement toward Socialism Party controls all branches of the government. The Morales government has maneuvered to take greater control of the news media. Some analysts predict that Morales will try to scrap presidential term limits so he can remain in office indefinitely.

JIMENA COSTA: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Opposition politician Jimena Costa calls Morales an authoritarian in the mold of Hugo Chavez, the late socialist leader of Venezuela. But with street rallies like this one in La Paz marking the final stretch of the campaign, Morales is the clear favorite. The political opposition remains divided, and polls show Morales with a huge lead over his closest rival. For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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