Bolivia's Morales doubtful of full diplomatic ties with U.S. soon


By Sarah Marsh and Diego Oré
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters)
- Bolivian President Evo Morales said on Thursday he wanted to restore full diplomatic relations with the United States but doubted this would happen soon, even after the recent rapprochement between Washington and former Cold War enemy Cuba.

Morales, a prominent member of South America's leftist bloc and one of the region's most popular leaders, told Reuters in an interview he had sought a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama but had not received a response.

Relations between the two countries disintegrated in 2008 when the Bolivian leader expelled Washington's ambassador, accusing the United States of conspiring to overthrow his government, and kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Asked if Bolivia wanted to restore full relations with the United States, Morales said: "We have a strong desire for this to happen."

Bolivia is one of the world's biggest cocaine producers. The United States says Bolivia's obligation to control illegal narcotics is key to the countries' relationship.

Local residents chew coca leaves, the main ingredient for cocaine when processed but which have only a mild stimulant effect in their natural form. Morales, a former coca farmer, has overseen a reduction in the coca crop in recent years.

Morales, 55, who frequently expounds fiery anti-capitalist and anti-American rhetoric, said both countries needed to share a mutual respect before ambassadors could be reinstated. Diplomatic relations were first established in 1848.

"The ministry of foreign affairs has asked for a meeting between presidents, but there has been no response," he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington was always seeking ways to improve the bilateral relationship, but added: "I don't have any updates ... with respect to the restoration of diplomatic relations."

Morales' folksy charm and prudent spending of Bolivia's natural gas bonanza helped him win a third term in a landslide election victory in October. Some political allies are urging he run again in 2019, a move that would require constitutional reform.

"It seems there are more 'Evistas' than 'Masistas,'" said Morales, referring to people who support him over his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). Morales, who has no clear anointed successor, declined to say if he would run again.

"We have many leaders. What is lacking is confidence in a brother or a sister. This requires time."

Bolivia's economy has tripled in size since Morales came to power in 2006, largely driven by a boom in natural gas export revenue which he has used to finance welfare programs and cut poverty.

Even so, Morales said the recent collapse in oil prices would not derail his brand of 'indigenous socialism'.

"It affects us, but it will not knock us down."

Morales gave his interview in Santa Cruz, a city of ornate colonial architecture and industrial warehouses, on the second day of a visit by Pope Francis to Bolivia amid a thawing of frosty relations between the Catholic Church and the government.

The president in 2008 denounced the Catholic Church as an "instrument of domination" and a year later the church was stripped of its official status in a referendum which declared Bolivia a secular state.

During the interview in the presidential hangar of a small Santa Cruz airport, Morales said he had been raised Catholic but that the church's criticisms of his government, including accusations he wielded an autocratic style of leadership, had eroded trust in the church.
"This kind of message wears you down," he said.

However, Morales said that in the Argentine-born Pope Francis he now had an ally championing many of the same causes.

"We agree on issues like capitalism, the rights of Mother Earth, the distribution of wealth," he said, expressing confidence the detente would continue.

The pontiff praised Bolivia's social reforms to spread wealth and urged the world not to view prosperity as material wealth, an interpretation he said only bred conflict.