Envoy exchange with Bolivia to take place this year: US

WASHINGTON (AFP)— An exchange of ambassadors between Bolivia and the United States could take place as soon as this year, a top US official said Thursday.

"Certainly the goal is to exchange ambassadors this year," said John Creamer, charge d'affaires at the US embassy in Bolivia's capital La Paz, speaking to reporters in Washington.

The move to swap envoys after nearly half a decade brings Washington a step toward normal ties with La Paz after years of diplomatic strain with South America's poorest nation.

Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales, a staunch US critic, in 2008 ordered the expulsion of then-US ambassador Philip Goldberg, accusing him at the time of backing opposition groups which had been defying his administration. Washington retaliated by telling the Bolivian ambassador to go home.

In 2011, the countries set up a panel to hold talks on improving bilateral relations covering various issues, including cooperation on the fight against the illegal drug trade and on fostering more investment.

Creamer said that while the two countries continue to have "differences over many issues," rapprochement has been possible because "both countries recognize that we have common interests."

One particularly sensitive sticking point has been Bolivia's handling of its trade in coca leaves, the raw material from which cocaine can be made.

Morales, Bolivia's first elected indigenous president, is the former head of a coca growers union and highly sensitive to the criticism.

The plant's raw leaf is an age-old keystone of indigenous Andean culture: it is chewed to fight altitude sickness, taken as a tea, and used in religious ceremonies, and Creamer said he understood its importance to Bolivians.

"We understand and respect the cultural and historical significance of coca leave chewing," the US diplomat said.

Bolivia's main indigenous peoples are Aymara and Quechua. It is South America's only country with an indigenous majority.