U.S. to send ambassador to Bolivia for first time in over a decade

MIAMI/LA PAZ (Reuters) - The United States intends to send an ambassador to Bolivia to help restore a “normal relationship” between the two countries, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said in a video statement posted online on Thursday.

The move, which would mark the return of a U.S. ambassador to La Paz for the first time in over a decade, underscores rapidly improving relations since the current interim government took over after the resignation of leftist leader Evo Morales.

The United States has had a lower-ranking diplomat in the South American country since Morales ordered the last ambassador Philip Goldberg to leave in 2008, blaming him for opposition protests against his rule.

Morales stepped down under pressure in November after a disputed election sparked widespread protests and led to allies and security forces pulling their support. Morales contends he was toppled in a coup, orchestrated by the United States.

Hale said in the video statement posted on the U.S. embassy website that he welcomed the new opportunity to “strengthen our relationship and mutual understanding.”

“As the next step the United States will once again send an ambassador to La Paz to continue these conversations and restore a normal relationship between our people,” he said.

Bolivia’s conservative caretaker President Jeanine Anez has looked to draw a line under the foreign policies of Morales’ administration, shifting away from old allies like Venezuela and Cuba and rekindling ties with the United States.

The country is now heading toward new elections in May, with Morales’ socialist party looking to run without him for the first time in 14 years against a range of opposition candidates.

“This is a critical time for Bolivia and the Bolivian people as you work towards free and fair elections on May 3,” Hale said.

“This is an opportunity to build a foundation for a stable, secure, prospering and democratic Bolivia.”

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Miami and Monica Machicao in La Paz; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Shumaker