Bolivia doesn't need U.S. anti-drug aid, leader says

Bolivia's President Evo Morales, left, greets members of the Brazilian Air Force at Trinidad's airport, in northern Bolivia, Monday, Feb. 11, 2008. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
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LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- President Evo Morales said Saturday that Bolivia does not need U.S. help to control its coca crop, stepping up his anti-Washington rhetoric days after rejecting an American request to fly an anti-drug plane over the South American nation's territory.

Bolivian President Evo Morales walks through a coca field as soldiers eradicate plants in Asunta on Saturday.

Morales also compared U.S. counter-drug efforts in the country, including Drug Enforcement Administration flights, to espionage.

"It's important that the international community knows that here, we don't need control of the United States on coca cultivation," the president told a gathering of coca farmers. "We can control ourselves internally. We don't need any spying from anybody."

U.S. Embassy spokesman Eric Watnik said the DEA makes periodic requests to fly a plane transporting U.S. and Bolivian anti-narcotics personnel across the country. The aircraft is not used for surveillance, he said.

Relations between Washington and La Paz have increasingly deteriorated in recent weeks. Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador last month, accusing him of supporting deadly protests organized by his conservative opposition. The former ambassador denies the allegations.

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Washington responded by ousting Bolivia's ambassador and later placed the Andean nation on an anti-narcotics blacklist, saying Morales has not sufficiently cooperated with U.S. anti-drug efforts.

"We've certified Bolivia twice before under the Morales government, even though they have taken a very different approach to counterdrugs, especially to eradication, than previous governments," said Tom Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

"But what we've noticed over the past couple of months," he added, "was a declining political willingness to cooperate and then a very precise attempt by the part of some of the government ministries to begin to lower the level of cooperation and try to break the linkages" between U.S. and Bolivian anti-drug efforts.

The listing will probably lead to suspension of a key trade deal between the two countries that Bolivian business leaders estimate could cost South America's poorest country as many as 20,000 jobs.

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca -- the base ingredient in cocaine -- after Colombia and Peru.