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Bolivia's president-elect meets Chávez, vows leftist campaign

CARACAS -- President-elect Evo Morales of Bolivia, fresh from a visit with Fidel Castro, launched a world tour yesterday by joining with President Hugo Chávez in a denunciation of free-market economics -- a sign of the growing relationship among the three leftist leaders.

Notably, the tour includes stops in Spain, France, Belgium, South Africa, China, and Brazil -- but not Washington. Morales's spokesman says he was not invited.

Arriving in Caracas aboard a specially arranged Cuban jetliner, Morales said he and Chávez were uniting in a ''fight against neoliberalism and imperialism."

The Venezuelan leader received him with full military honors as well as hugs and smiles. Crowds of leftist, progovernment supporters cheered as Morales and Chávez arrived at the National Pantheon in downtown Caracas, then headed to a private meeting at Miraflores Palace.

Morales is on the first leg of a trip apparently intended to explore the future of Bolivia's natural gas holdings, the second largest in South America, which the president-elect says he wants to nationalize.

It is also designed to show that the coca-growing protest organizer has the presidential grit to hold his own on the world stage and tackle the deep problems of his country, including poverty and political instability.

In praising Castro and Chávez yesterday, Morales clearly established Washington's fiercest Latin American critics as his models.

''We are here to resolve social problems, economic problems," Morales said. ''This movement is not only in Bolivia; Fidel in Cuba and Hugo in Venezuela are logging triumphs in social movements and leftist policies."

''We are going to change Bolivia. We are going to change Latin America," Morales said.

Chávez referred to the three leftist leaders as ''an axis of good" -- a play on President Bush's reference to North Korea, Iran, and prewar Iraq as the ''axis of evil."

Just back from his first trip abroad over the weekend to communist Cuba, Morales met Monday with US Ambassador David Greenlee. Representatives of both sides said the meeting was private and declined to give details.

Morales vowed during his campaign to be Washington's ''nightmare" but has said he is open to developing relations with the United States. American officials, too, have said they hope to work with Morales.

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