Bolivia's Morales pledges no major nationalizations in new term

By Enrique Andres Pretel
LA PAZ (Reuters)
- President Evo Morales on Monday ruled out any major new nationalizations in Bolivia following his re-election victory and said he would be "realistic" as he pursued socialist policies in his third term.

Morales, an Aymara Indian and former coca grower who became Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2006, comfortably won the election on Sunday with an estimated 60 percent support and he will now lead the country until early 2020.

Morales' anti-poverty programs and prudent spending of funds from the nationalization of natural gas and oil businesses have earned him wide support in a country long dogged by political instability.

Some business leaders worried there might now be a new round of nationalizations, especially in the mining and banking industries, but he moved to ease those fears on Monday.

"There are no more owners left," he told Reuters in an interview in the presidential palace in capital La Paz, adding that only a few foreign mining companies who acted as partners in state-led projects remained and that he did not see them as an issue.

He also ruled out a wave of nationalizations in the banking industry.

"We have negotiated with the private banking sector. There were some groups (in the government) who said that we had to nationalize, but it's better to negotiate. As they are earning well, let them pay more taxes," he said.

Only a trickle of official results had been published by Monday evening, with the delay apparently due to technical issues, but a TV exit poll said Morales won about 60 percent of the vote and his main opposition rival, cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, conceded defeat.

Exit polls showed that Morales' Movement towards Socialism party won the vote in eight of Bolivia's nine regions, including Santa Cruz, which is the country's most affluent region and traditionally an opposition stronghold.

During his first two terms, Morales delivered economic growth averaging more than 5 percent a year and ran fiscal surpluses even as he spent heavily on anti-poverty programs.

Although he is part of a bloc of socialist and anti-U.S. leaders in Latin America and he dedicated his re-election victory to Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, Morales has been more pragmatic than some of his closest allies on economic policy at home.

"We are never going to abandon our principles and values. Within that, we are realistic, practical," he told Reuters. "If that means strengthening trade bodies and private businesses, fine."

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think-tank, said Morales' approach is unlikely to change much over the next five years.

"He seems to have found a winning formula in his second term and he will see how far he can take it in the third," he said.

Nonetheless, the socialist leader has been helped by a period of high natural gas prices, allowing him to spend on social programs without undermining fiscal stability.

Shifter said there are questions about how long such conditions will last and whether Morales is willing to develop a more diversified economy.

Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and critics say Morales is autocratic, using his power to exert control over the judiciary.

But working-class voters see the ex-union leader as a symbol of the country's progress in the last decade.

"We have seen the president take Bolivia to where it deserves to be," said 50-year-old newspaper vendor Guillermo Mansilla in La Paz on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Monica Machicao; Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Kieran Murray)