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U.S. senator calls for improved U.S.-Bolivia relations

U.S. senator calls for improved U.S.-Bolivia relations

Six U.S. senators led by incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with Bolivian President Evo Morales in a bid to strengthen the United States' delicate relationship with one of Latin America's new leftist leaders.
U.S.-Bolivian relations have been strained since Morales' election a year ago, with U.S. officials wary of his administration's close ties to Cuba and Venezuela and Morales equally dubious of American drug war efforts in the coca-growing Andes.
But following what he described as a "long, intense conversation" Thursday with Bolivia's first Indian president, Reid said the only way to improve relations with Latin America is by paying more attention to the region.
"I believe that the U.S. needs to be heavily involved in Latin America, and we're not," the Nevada Democrat told The Associated Press. "I believe that Bolivia is looking for help, and I think we can be an agent for help."
Latin America's recent populist shift, of which Morales has been an eager standard-bearer, was due in part to U.S. neglect of the region, Reid said.
"As we speak we're spending US$2.5 billion (euro1.9 billion) a week in Iraq," he added. "For a small, insignificant share of that US$2.5 billion we could have a tremendous impact on infrastructure development in this part of the world which is so badly needed."
As for Morales' close ties to fellow leftist and U.S. critic President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Reid said, "We don't have to walk away from a man who's having conversations with someone we don't like."
The senator praised Morales "magnetic personality" and said that he "could be, if things work out right, the best leader this country ever had."
But Reid cautioned that Morales' sweeping populist reforms must leave intact the democratic processes that brought him to power.
"The one thing we're going to do is make sure that this is a democratic government, and the only people who can make that effective are the people of Bolivia," he added. "We have to keep our eye on what's going on here."
Earlier Thursday, Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, told reporters in fluent Spanish that the visit "signals a different direction" for U.S.-Bolivian relations.
"I believe all of us want the same thing, to help lift up the people of Latin America so that they can achieve the human dignity they deserve," Salazar said.
Visiting a U.S.-sponsored local craft fair Thursday, Reid admired a copy of Morales' famous red-and-blue striped sweater hand-knit by a Quechua woman.
The senators' wives, meanwhile, toured a popular shopping district in downtown La Paz famous for selling the dried llama fetuses Bolivians ceremonially burn for good luck.
Joining Reid and Salazar were incoming Majority Whip Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois; Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota; Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire; and Sen. Robert Bennett, a Republican from Utah.
Morales, who still holds office as head of a federation of Bolivian coca growers' unions, announced earlier this month that he would seek to significantly expand the area for legal cultivation of coca. The leaf is commonly used in Bolivia as a mild stimulant but is also the main ingredient in cocaine.
The statement drew sharp criticism from Washington, which has strenuously objected to any increase in coca production, but the two nations this month signed an agreement guaranteeing US$34 million (euro26 million) in U.S. anti-narcotics aid for next year.
On Thursday, Reid said that the Andean country was "moving forward" in its fight against drug trafficking, citing Morales' eradication this year of more than 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres) of coca.
Morales has railed against U.S. foreign policy and accused the Bush administration of plotting to overthrow his government or even assassinate him.
But he also sent Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera twice to Washington to negotiate an extension of a key trade agreement with the U.S. _ which President Bush himself eventually backed and Congress passed earlier this month.
The U.S. delegation travels next to Ecuador where it will meet Saturday with populist President-elect Rafael Correa. The senators will then travel to Peru for talks with center-left President Alan Garcia on Jan. 2.


Updated : 2021-04-21 11:10 GMT+08:00