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US Expects Bolivia to Continue Anti-Drug Efforts

The United States said Thursday it expects the next government in Bolivia to continue anti-drug efforts, and if not it will evaluate relations with La Paz. The leading candidate in Sunday's Bolivian presidential election, Evo Morales, is a proponent of legalizing cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine.

The Bush administration has taken a low public profile with regard to the Bolivian election race, despite the publicity surrounding Mr. Morales, a one-time leader of the country's coca growers federation who is considered the front-runner in Sunday's election.

But it is suggesting that it might reconsider the United States' long-standing close relationship with the La Paz government if Mr. Morales wins and follows through with a campaign pledge to, at least, partially legalize the coca industry.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States hopes the election takes place free from violence, so that the Bolivian people will be able to decide through the ballot box who is best equipped to lead the South American country forward after a period of political unrest.

Questioned about Mr. Morales' platform with regard to coca-growing, Spokesman McCormack said the United States supports Bolivia's long-standing counter-narcotics policy and would expect whatever government that comes next to honor commitments made to fight against the production and transport of illegal drugs.

Without specifically mentioning Mr. Morales or his platform, the spokesman said the United States would have to evaluate its relationship with a government that would not continue an anti-drug stance.

"We'll see what the outcomes of the elections are," he said. "But certainly the quality, the depth, the breadth, of any relationship with the United States will depend upon the intersection of our common interests. So we'll see, first of all who's elected, what policies that person pursues, and based on that we'll make an evaluation of what kind of relationship we're going to have with that state."

The latest newspaper opinion polls in Bolivia indicate that Mr. Morales, a leftist politician of indigenous Indian descent, has a lead of several percentage points over conservative former President Jorge Quiroga in a multi-candidate race.

Indian highlanders in Bolivia and neighboring countries have chewed unprocessed coca leaves for generations to mitigate hunger and increase stamina.

Mr. Morales has said that as president, he would allow such usage to continue and also allow the industrial use of coca products for such as pharmaceuticals, toothpaste and beverages.

But drug control experts say most coca grown in Bolivia ends up being processed into cocaine for illegal export, and that production in the country has gone up sharply lately in anticipation of a more tolerant government policy.

U.S. officials have also expressed concern about Mr. Morales' close ties with Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez, and have said Mr. Chavez may have helped foment political unrest in Bolivia that has driven two presidents from office since 2003.

Spokesman McCormack said the United States has raised questions about Mr. Chavez' motives and activities in the hemisphere.

He said assistance to the region's struggling democracies should be transparent, and that the United States would urge Mr. Chavez to join in a positive agenda for the hemisphere that reinforces democracy, good governance and open markets.

Both Mr. Morales and the Venezuelan leader strongly oppose economic globalization and the hemispheric free-trade zone championed by the United States.