Evo Morales eases fears of Bolivia's businessmen

President-elect Evo Morales seems to have gained crucial support from Bolivia's powerful business and civic leaders with a conciliatory meeting calculated to overcome widespread fears about the fiery former street activist's economic policies. The leftist Aymara Indian leader has been viewed with great suspicion by the Bolivian elite, but they applauded Tuesday night after Morales said his government would create a stable legal and economic environment to attract investment and create jobs.

"I do not want to harm anybody. I do not want to expropriate or confiscate any assets," Morales told the businessmen and civic leaders of Santa Cruz, a relatively wealthy city that has sought more autonomy in the very poor country. "I want to learn from the businessmen."

Morales promised to hold a referendum on their autonomy demands, and said he would quickly resolve a dispute over development of El Mutun, a rich iron mining project near the border with Brazil that would create some 2,000 jobs in the Santa Cruz area. Public bidding for the project had been postponed, angering regional leaders, after Morales and the outgoing government jointly agreed to take more time to learn the details.

"He promised more than what we asked for," said Gabriel Dabdoub, the president of the region's powerful chamber of commerce. "Let's now hope he will fulfill his promises."

Morales came to the meeting with Vice President-elect Alvaro Garcia Linera, a mathematician and university professor who has been a key adviser. Garcia served a five-year prison sentence until 1997 after being convicted of participating in failed guerrilla group. He also taught sociology in La Paz and had a political commentary television program.

Morales cemented his own image as a radical as one of the leaders of street protests that toppled two Bolivian presidents and forced the government to cancel plans to export natural gas and supply privatized water to El Alto, a poor neighbor of La Paz. But he and Garcia adopted a conciliatory tone Tuesday night.

"I do not have a professional education, but it is important that we cooperate," added Morales, who left school after the 11th grade. "You have the professional capacity, I have the social consciousness." While the audience clearly included a number of invited and enthusiastic Morales supporters, many civic leaders applauded openly as well.

"I think Mr. Morales' stance is coherent and I am satisfied," said Juan Abuawad, president of the Forestal Chamber, which represents Bolivian timber companies. On Tuesday, Morales said he will cut his salary and those of the members of congress by half to create a fund that will be used to help finance health and education programs.

"We have decided to cut the president's salary to 14,000 or 15,000 bolivianos (US$1,675 or US$1,750; Ђ1,406 or Ђ1,469) a month because we all have to share the situation of our country," he told reporters, reports the AP. I.L.

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