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US Ready To Engage with New Bolivian Leader

The Bush administration said Friday it is ready to engage with the government of incoming Bolivian President Evo Morales despite the leftist leader's criticism of U.S. policy. The United States will be represented at Mr. Morales' inauguration Sunday by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon.

Mr. Morales based his campaign in part on criticism of U.S. policies in Latin America and at one point said he would be a nightmare for the United States if elected.

However, both the Bush administration and Mr. Morales are sounding a conciliatory tone in advance of the inaugural ceremonies Sunday in La Paz.

The 46-year-old Mr. Morales, a socialist who will become Bolivia's first indigenous Indian president, is a former leader of the country's coca growers federation.

He campaigned for the legalization of the growing of coca -- the base ingredient for cocaine -- though proclaiming opposition to illicit drug trafficking.

In advance of the inauguration, he has held talks with the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, David Greenlee, that are said to have focused on improving bilateral relations and maintaining the war on drugs.

Assistant Secretary Shannon is expected to continue the dialogue during his visit to La Paz for the ceremonies.

At a news briefing Friday, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Mr. Morales will have to decide what policies he thinks are right for Bolivia, and that based on those policies the Bush administration will assess how to proceed.

He said despite policy differences, the U.S. side hopes for a positive, good relationship. "I'm sure that there may be some differences of opinion. Differences of opinion exist in every relationship. But we would hope that where there are differences we could work through them in a transparent, respectful manner. So certainly we stand ready to engage with the new Bolivian Government and we'll see what policies President Morales decides to pursue once he is faced with the challenges of governing; and based on that, we'll see what kind of relationship the United States and Bolivia will enjoy," he said.

The spokesman said the United States and Bolivia have worked very well in the past on anti-narcotics efforts and that U.S. officials hope that cooperation continues.

The United States has provided Bolivia with tens of millions of dollars annually in anti-drug assistance, but Mr. Morales has been a bitter critic of a key aspect of the U.S. program, the chemical eradication of coca fields.

He has also been a critic of free-trade agreements championed by the Bush administration.

However, in an Associated Press interview Friday he said he no longer rules out participation in a proposed free-trade arrangement involving the United States and Andean countries.

At the same time, Mr. Morales said Bolivian interests might be better served by joining the Mercosur trading block of South American states, or by seeking stronger trade ties with the European Union.

Meanwhile, Mr. Morales' economic adviser, Carlos Villegas, said the new administration would respect the property rights of international oil companies despite the incoming president's promise to nationalize Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves.

Mr. Morales is one of several leftists to score presidential election victories in South America in the past few years.

Spokesman McCormack has said the trend does not alarm the Bush administration, and that it is not a government's political orientation that matters to U.S. officials but its commitment to democracy and good governance.