November 17, 2008 / 11:02 PM / 10 years ago

Bolivia's Morales seeks better ties with Obama

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Bolivia’s left-wing President Evo Morales said on Monday he wanted improved ties with the incoming U.S. administration of Barack Obama but ruled out having U.S. anti-drug agents resume work under his rule.

“My interest is how to improve relations with the new president,” Morales told a news conference after addressing the U.N. General Assembly. “I think we could have a lot of things in common.

“If we talk about change I have some experience now,” he said, referring to the Obama presidential campaign’s slogans based on the need for change. “I think it would be good to share experiences with the new president-elect.”

Morales, the first Indian to become Bolivian president, compared himself with Obama as the first black to win the U.S. presidency. He said better relations had to be based on “respect from one government to another.”

He also ruled out reversing his November 1 move barring U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents from fighting cocaine traffickers in his country. Morales had accused them of spying and maintaining ties with anti-government groups that staged violent protests in September. Washington denied the charge.

“The DEA will not return whilst I am still president,” Morales said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.

Bolivia is the world’s No. 3 producer of cocaine, a drug that reaches the U.S. market in large quantities. Relations between Bolivia and the United States turned sour after Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador in September, accusing him of inciting the anti-government protests.

Morales said Bolivia was keen to work with other countries to combat drugs, saying a key issue was obtaining helicopters.

“We’ve discussed matters with Brazil, Russia and France, where they manufacture helicopters,” he said. “We want to buy some, perhaps using emergency loans. There is interest in South American countries and Europe to join together to fight against a common problem, which is drug trafficking.”

COCA LEAF

Morales, a former coca farmer, says he opposes cocaine trafficking but does not oppose harvesting of its main ingredient, the coca leaf, which Bolivian Indians use in rituals and chew for its medicinal and nutritional properties.

He said he planned a campaign to remove the coca leaf from the U.N. list of prohibited drugs.

Earlier, Morales used his General Assembly speech to thank the international community for the support he said it had shown during the September unrest, although he said the United States had failed to join that support.

He also criticized the past weekend’s Group of 20 summit in Washington for basing its solutions to the global financial crisis on free trade, which he said was not fair trade.

“To get out of the crisis we have to do away with the neo-liberal model and the capitalist system,” he said, calling for unspecified changes in the rules of the World Trade Organization.

He later told the news conference that Bolivia was prepared for the effects of the financial crisis, partly due to an increase in its foreign currency reserves.

He said he had spoken in recent days with the Inter-American Development Bank to ask for a soft credit “so that we could invest $100 million or $200 million in our productive sector.” He gave no further details and did not say what the response had been.

Editing by Bill Trott

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