January 10, 2006

US to seek dialogue with Bolivia’s Morales

By Andrew Hay

BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) - The top U.S. policymaker for
Latin America said on Tuesday he would seek dialogue with
Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales despite the former coca
leaf farmer's opposition to U.S. drug and trade policies.

Thomas Shannon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for
Western Hemisphere affairs, said he hoped U.S. officials would
sit down with Morales after his January 22 inauguration and
discuss issues such as a U.S. coca eradication program, which
Bolivia's first elected Indian president opposes.

Shannon said the United States had an "extremely positive"
relationship with Bolivia and he wanted it to continue.

"We want to have the opportunity to enter a dialogue with
the president-elect and his government to better understand how
we can move ahead with this relationship," Shannon told
reporters after meeting with Brazilian officials on the first
leg of a visit to South America.

Morales' election victory in December poses a challenge to
the Bush administration in Latin America, where its
unpopularity is growing and left-wing leaders are on the rise.

Washington in the past demonized Morales for his promise to
roll back a U.S.-funded program to eradicate coca, the plant
used to make cocaine, if he were elected president.

But Morales has shown himself to be a pragmatic politician
capable of compromise on a range of issues.

Shannon said Bolivia had long cooperated with Washington in
efforts to reduce the production of coca and cocaine and was
looking for ways to engage with Morales over the issue.

"We are going to have to talk with the new government to
understand how we can move ahead with this process," said
Shannon, who is expected to visit Argentina before heading the
U.S. delegation attending Morales' inauguration.

Analysts see Shannon taking a less hard-line approach to
the Bolivian leader than his predecessor, Roger Noriega, whom
he replaced in October.

"Any effort by the U.S. to make it difficult for Morales to
govern at the outset would make him into a martyr in most of
Latin America, and I think Shannon understands that," said
Peter Hakim, president of the Interamerican Dialogue think tank
in Washington, D.C.

Morales' support for populist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez
and Cuban President Fidel Castro has raised fears in Washington
of the formation of an anti-U.S. bloc in Latin America.

Shannon, a career foreign service officer, said he was more
concerned for now with Bolivian-U.S. relations than Morales'
links with Cuba and Venezuela.

"At this moment we want to focus on our bilateral relation
with Bolivia without considering foreign influences," he said.