Egged on by Venezuela's Chávez, Morales may have moved too far with the arrest of Sanmartino. Human rights organizations worldwide and Cuban exile groups in Miami and Spain are rallying to defend the detained Cuban doctor, as world opinion turns against the Morales government's latest faux pas and his approval rating in the polls at home slips.
Unlike Chávez, however, Morales is not rich. Though Bolivia sits on the second-largest natural gas deposits in South America (after Venezuela's), and though the country also has substantial oil reserves, they have not been exploited to the degree that Venezuela has exploited its oil. Thus, though Morales did seize ownership of the gas fields last May, he needs the former owners, foreign companies including Brasil's Petrobras and Spain's Repsol YPF, to operate them for him. Production is still limited, providing Morales far less revenue to finance his agenda than Chávez controls.
Ever since the National Revolution in 1952, the indigenous population of Bolivia has steadily gained influence and power in Bolivian politics, culminating in the election of one of their own, Evo Morales, who is an Aymara, to the presidency in December, 2005. Morales parlayed his leadership of the cocaleros (coca leaf farmers) to a 54% majority in the December election, taking office as the country's first indigenous president in January, 2006.
Though he has made much-publicized visits to both Cuba and Venezuela in which he pledged "solidarity" with Castro and Chávez, Morales has also met with the US ambassador and termed his meetings "cordial." Washington, however, has adopted a "wait and see" attitude.
The Sanmartino arrest may change that.