The State Department is defending the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, who has come under criticism for alleged interference in that country's hotly-contested presidential election. The Bolivian congress will select the next president from the top two finishers in the June 30 election, one of whom campaigned for an end to U.S.-supported coca-eradication efforts.
The election, for which final returns were issued Tuesday, is described as the closest in Bolivian history. And with none of the eleven candidates getting an outright majority of votes, the winner will be decided by the Bolivian congress which will choose between the two top finishers in a vote due by early next month.
The two remaining contenders are former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a mining executive and free market advocate, and the second-place finisher Evo Morales, a socialist and leader of the country's coca-growers association.
Mr. Morales conducted a tumultuous campaign that included calls for the expulsion of U.S. drug enforcement agents from Bolivia and claims that the U.S. embassy in La Paz was plotting to assassinate him.
The charges prompted U.S. ambassador, Manuel Rocha, in a speech four days before the voting, to directly criticize Mr. Morales and warn that electing him could jeopardize U.S. aid and investment in Bolivia.
The ambassador's remarks, in turn, drew charges of U.S. interference in the election process. But briefing reporters, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker stressed that the envoy was entitled to rebut unwarranted and incendiary charges against him and the U.S. mission.
"There were calls and statements made they were incorrect," he said. "And we feel that based on that type of incendiary commentary from one particular person, that the ambassador was absolutely warranted in making the speech that he did, in laying out what U.S. policy is, and making quite clear what that is, and our support for Bolivia's counter-narcotics policy. And we'll stand behind that and let the people of Bolivia make their own choices in the free, fair, transparent elections that they are proceeding with."
Mr. Reeker said the State Department congratulates Bolivia on a well-run election, which he said despite the closeness of the vote was honest and fair.
He added the United States wishes Bolivians well in the second phase of the election, and said hopes that the next president is someone who "shares the traditional commitment" of the two governments to developing economic relations, improving human rights and eliminating the scourge of narcotics trafficking.
The spokesman said he did not accept that notion that the U.S. ambassador's criticism of Mr. Morales had boosted his campaign. Tuesday's returns showed him edging the populist former mayor of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes, by a few hundred votes to gain the second-place finish.
Bolivian political analysts say Mr. Sanchez de Lozada, who was president from 1993 to 1997, is the likely winner in the Congressional vote, though they say Mr. Morales could win if he is able to forge a coalition of leftist and populist parties.