January 21, 2006

Bolivia’s Morales pledges to work with US

By Mary Milliken

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivian President-elect Evo
Morales -- a longtime critic of the United States -- and
Washington's top official for Latin America pledged to work
together at a meeting on Saturday but made no mention of the
war on drugs that divides them.

Thomas Shannon, the new U.S. assistant secretary of state
for Western Hemisphere affairs, called their first encounter
"very important" and wished Morales success in his presidency
that begins with Sunday's inauguration.

"I wanted to assure him that we are very willing to begin a
process of dialogue to determine the way in which the two
governments can work together," Shannon, a career diplomat,
told reporters in Spanish with Morales at his side.

During his campaign that led to a landslide victory on
December 18, Morales, a coca growers' leader, said his
socialist party was "a nightmare for the United States."

His strongest allies are strident U.S. foes Cuban President
Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The United States has traditionally wielded much influence
in the South American nation and is its top aid donor. About
two-thirds of the $150 million in aid is linked to the
U.S.-backed eradication of coca leaf crops, the raw material to
make cocaine.

Bolivia is the third-largest producer of cocaine behind
Colombia and Peru, where the United States also funds
eradication programs.

As the fiery leader of Bolivia's coca farmers, Morales
steadfastly opposed eradication and defended Indians' right to
cultivate the leaves that Bolivians chew or brew for tea to
ward off the effects of altitude sickness, fatigue and hunger.

Legal cultivation for those uses is currently limited and
Morales has suggested he could decriminalize coca while
promising to fight the narcotics trade.

When asked if Bolivia's coca cultivation was discussed,
Morales said the first meeting with Shannon not involve
specific issues but rather a general discussion of social
issues and politics.

"You know Evo Morales still does not have his work teams
set up," Morales told reporters, referring to himself in the
third person. "He asked us that, when they are set up, we begin
to work on specific issues."