March 8, 2006

Rice to meet Bolivia’s Morales

By Helen Popper

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales
said on Wednesday economic issues would dominate a weekend
meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the
first high-level talks between the leftist and Washington.

Morales, who once described his movement as a "nightmare
for the U.S.," announced the meeting at a news conference in
which he reiterated sharp criticism of the United States after
a string of spats in recent weeks.

"I have asked that the meeting deal fundamentally with
economic matters," Morales told reporters, saying it would take
place this weekend in Chile, where both he and Rice are due to
attend Michelle Bachelet's inauguration as Chilean president.

Morales -- who has called Rice 'The Condoleezza' -- added
that the agenda included preferential trade tariffs and global
poverty-eradication goals. Bolivia is South America's poorest
nation and the United States is its top aid donor.

Along with fellow Andean countries, Bolivia receives
preferential trade tariffs from the United States as long as it
cooperates in the war on drug-trafficking. But that deal
expires at the end of the year and Bolivia has not taken part
in free-trade negotiations with Washington.

Morales rose into politics as the leader of Bolivia's coca
growers and the United States worries he will allow coca
cultivation to increase in Bolivia, the world's third-biggest
cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

Washington has also been wary of his friendships with
fellow leftists and U.S. regional bugbears Fidel Castro of Cuba
and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The weekend meeting with Rice follows a string of tentative
contacts since Morales took office in January, as well as a
series of disagreements in recent weeks.

Morales accused the U.S. military earlier this week of
"blackmail" for cutting funding from a Bolivian anti-terror
unit because it was unhappy about the commander leading the
force. Last month, he lambasted a U.S. decision to revoke the
visa of a close aide and fellow coca farmer.

"They think that social organizations are terrorists," said
Morales, who rose to power fighting U.S.-backed campaigns to
eradicate coca plantations.

"I'm receiving a lot of aggression, a lot of provocation
through the U.S. Embassy," he added.

However, after meeting U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee soon
afterward he said he remained open to dialogue.

U.S. diplomats in La Paz have sought to play down the
recent conflicts. "Sometimes there are differences, but I think
these differences will be overcome," Greenlee told reporters.