ARROYO CONCEPCION, Bolivia (Reuters) — Brazil agreed Thursday to help Bolivia combat drug trafficking as part of measures to show support for President Evo Morales before a key referendum on his new socialist constitution.
Brazil is keen to reward Bolivia for maintaining the supply of natural gas to its industries and to showcase its development aid, as other South American countries like Ecuador and Paraguay consider renegotiating debt with Brazil.
"We won't have lasting prosperity if all our South American brothers don't have prosperity as well," Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said during the inauguration of a highway that will link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans when the last stretch is finished later this year.
In the sweltering heat of the vast wetlands along the Bolivia-Brazil border, Lula said he would grant Morales's request for helicopters and other logistics support to patrol the porous frontier that is a major cocaine-trafficking route from the Andes to violence-plagued cities like Rio de Janeiro.
After expelling the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for allegedly supporting opposition leaders last year, Bolivian President Evo Morales has turned for help to Brazil.
"I want us to fight drugs together," said Morales.
Morales is an ally of fierce U.S. critic Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez but since last year has been seeking to improve ties with the more moderate leftist Lula.
The DEA had been Bolivia's key source of intelligence on the movement of traffickers, Brazilian officials said.
"Its departure is not good. Bolivia will be our major concern in 2009," Mauro Sposito, head of the Brazilian federal police's border patrol.
WORKERS AND ROADS
Lula said Brazil was giving priority to legalizing thousands of undocumented Bolivian workers in Brazil.
He also offered financing to build another 306 km (190 miles) of motorways in land-locked Bolivia, one of the region's poorest countries, as well as aid to boost food and industrial production.
The two presidents inaugurated about 240 km (149 miles) of a newly paved highway between the border town of Arroyo Concepcion and Robore in Bolivia's Santa Cruz province. The $170 million deal was financed by the Andean Development Corporation.
When the last 80 km (50 miles) are completed this year, the road will link Brazil's port of Santos on the Atlantic coast with Arrequipa in Peru and Iquique in Chile.
Brazil is concerned growing economic nationalism will threaten the interests of its companies in the region. Odebrecht, one of three Brazilian companies that built the road, was ousted from Ecuador last year over a contractual dispute. Paraguay wants to renegotiate debt on the Itaipu hydroelectric dam it owns jointly with Brazil.
Hundreds of Morales supporters cheered and waved flags during the ceremony Thursday. The area is in a province dominated by Morales' opponents who want more autonomy and fear populist economic policies under his socialist constitution.
In stifling heat that caused two spectators to faint, Morales' aides distributed miniature copies of the socialist Constitution he hopes will be approved in a Jan. 25 referendum.
"Evo is giving an example of democracy that many of his predecessors didn't," said Lula, likening Morales to South Africa's Nelson Mandela for bringing a long-suppressed majority to power.