Bolivian President Elect Makes Bold Claims on Coca

Bolivia's president-elect, Evo Morales, is making big promises to his country. Chief among them is a campaign pledge to curtail a coca eradication program that the US has spent billions on in the region.

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Bolivia's new president-elect, Evo Morales, has vowed to nationalize the country's rich oil and gas reserves. At a news conference in La Paz yesterday, Morales also reaffirmed his campaign pledge to curtail a coca eradication program that the US has spent billions on in the region. While official counting in Sunday's election continues, Morales is expected to be certified as Bolivia's first indigenous president. And as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from La Paz, initial indications of his proposed policies put him at odds with Washington.

President-elect EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

In a crammed room, Evo Morales beamed for the cameras and teased jostling reporters about being paparazzi. He was savoring a victory so sweeping it has no parallel in recent Bolivian history. The size of his win is expected to confer on Morales a mandate to radically change one of South America's poorest countries. The president-elect suggested he'll start with the country's vast natural wealth.

Pres.-elect MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `We will nationalize natural gas and hydrocarbons,' he said, `but not the goods of the international companies.' `Every state has the right to exercise ownership over its natural resources,' he said, and added, `There is a great feeling among the Bolivian people that these resources should be in the hands of the Bolivian state.' Morales said that Bolivia needs partners, not owners, and that the contracts governing the oil and gas industry will be reviewed. But Morales said foreign companies are not being invited to leave and that they are entitled to earn from their investments.

In the last decade, foreign oil companies have invested billions of dollars in Bolivia and increased natural gas reserves to 53 trillion cubic feet, but uncertainty and a new increase in taxes on production have frozen major investment. Morales conceded that the industry will have doubts about his nationalization plan. It is his plan for coca production that is likely to raise the most doubts in Washington. Bolivia is the world's third-largest producer of coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine, but Morales says coca has also been used for chewing, making tea and in rituals here for centuries and he wants to remove the restraints on cultivation.

Pres.-elect MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `When the international community speaks of coca,' Morales said, `they speak indirectly about drug trafficking.' `But coca is not cocaine,' he said, `and the grower of coca is not a drug trafficker.' US officials say the legally sanctioned coca leaf quota here already satisfies traditional uses and that more coca production will only mean more cocaine flowing out of Bolivia, but Morales says he's against cocaine and wants to talk with Washington about it.

Pres.-elect MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `There has to be a fight against drugs,' says the former leader of the coca growers, `and I want to call on the government of the United States to join a pact to efficiently fight drug trafficking. We want zero cocaine,' he says, `but not zero coca.' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday Washington thought it already was fighting an effective war on drugs alongside Bolivia, but Morales calls the current US anti-drug efforts a pretext to bolster military presence in the region. Washington has adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the presumptive new president who, when asked about his anti-Yankee campaign rhetoric replied, `It's a term of resistance, a way of saying it's the end of submission.' Julie McCarthy, NPR News, La Paz, Bolivia.

McCARTHY: This is NPR News.

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