Bolivia sets condition for patching up US relations
March 5, 2009 - AFP

LA PAZ (AFP) — Bolivia is ready to normalize relations with the United States but only if the US government is willing to recognize the new place the coca leaf has in Bolivia's constitution, a top official said.

Bolivia-US relations, on a rocky road since socialist President Evo Morales took office three years ago, took a turn for the worse last year after each country expelled the other's ambassador and US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials were kicked out of Bolivia.

"We're ready to resume and redirect our relations, and from State Department information we have we know they are also ready," Deputy Foreign Minister Hugo Fernandez told a press conference in La Paz.

However, Fernandez added, normalizing relations depends on the Washington's respect for Bolivia's traditions.

"Our constitution doesn't allow any disdain for the coca leaf, and if the United States can't accept this, its difficult to see how we can reach an agreement."

A US State Department report last week singled out Bolivia as an area of major concern for its persistent cultivation of coca leaf -- raw material for cocaine -- and as a money laundering hub.

Despite the DEA's counternarcotics operations in Bolivia, Morales in a recent constitutional reform enshrined coca leaf growing as one of Bolivia's historic traditions, further complicating relations with Washington.

Bolivia has been hoping for a US rapprochement since President Barack Obama took office in January, and Fernandez said the ailing US economy was keeping Obama from dealing properly with US-Bolivian relations.

Morales remains the leader of Bolivia's largest coca-leaf growers union.

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