Morales: U.S. seeks excuse to meddle in Latin America

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia Mon Nov 22, 2010 3:23pm EST

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales on Monday urged Latin America to reject U.S. anti-drug, anti-communist and anti-terror policies, calling them "pretexts for interventionism."

Morales, one of Latin America's most strident critics of Washington, told a defense conference attended by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Washington remained a threat to regional peace and stability.

"Democracy, peace and security can only be guaranteed without interventionism, without hegemony," Morales said, listing a series of charges against Washington ranging from coup-plotting to interference in the country's traditional coca leaf farming. Coca is the plant used to make cocaine.

Gates listened to Morales' comments but did not appear to react to the broadside, which underscored the Obama administration's uphill battle to put relationships with many of its southern neighbors on a better footing.

The U.S. defense secretary, speaking to the conference later in the day, supported efforts to improve disaster relief coordination to help respond to regional events like the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile this year.

"This initiative will go far to help mitigate the human suffering that results from these tragedies," Gates said.

He also backed a proposal to promote transparency in regional defense spending, saying openness about military intentions and capabilities would help promote mutual trust in a region where many are still wary of U.S. influence.

Gates said his staff was working with the U.S. State Department to re-evaluate the Inter-American Convention on Transparency in Conventional Weapons Acquisition with a view to submitting it to the U.S. Senate for ratification.

UPHILL BATTLE

The Obama administration has worked to improve links with Latin America, hoping both to smooth working relationships with emerging powers such as Brazil as well as to counter new players in the region such as China and Iran.

But the way has not always been easy. Relations between Bolivia and the United States have been strained since Morales, a leader of the coca farmers union, was elected in 2005, the country's first indigenous leader.

The Bolivian government expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 along with agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, accusing them of supporting the conservative opposition.

Washington responded by expelling the Bolivian ambassador, leaving bilateral relations in their worst state ever. Ties have improved somewhat since then.

Morales, an admirer of longtime U.S. critics such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, nationalized the oil and gas sector in 2006 and speaks out about what he sees as U.S. imperialism.

Morales took particular aim at U.S. military operations in the region, many of which have been aimed both at countering guerrilla operations and at improving cooperation in the fight against powerful drug trafficking networks.

"Countries have a right to decide for themselves about their own democracy, for themselves about their own security,"

Morales said, adding that "while we have interventionist attitudes for whatever pretext … surely it is going to slow the liberation of the people."

"How can there be peace if there are U.S. military bases?" he asked, referring to a U.S. deal with Colombia that would give American forces greater access to Colombian military bases as part of its anti-drug effort. The agreement has been in limbo since a Colombian court suspended it in August.

Morales accused the United States of being behind efforts to undermine the socialist governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Honduras, where a coup unseated the president and democracy was not restored until the end of his term.

"With the United States we are 3-1," Morales joked.

(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga, editing by Cynthia Ostermn)

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