Bolivian president vows 'never' to negotiate free trade agreement with U.S.

President Evo Morales vowed never to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the United States then lunched Thursday with the U.S. ambassador and said he wanted to meet with President George W. Bush on "fair trade."

"Never will we negotiate a free-trade agreement," Morales said Wednesday evening during a visit to Santa Cruz, center of his country's soy industry.

"I want the Bolivian people, Latin Americans to know that the FTA not only is going to affect the small producers but also the medium and large."

But on Thursday, Morales lunched with U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee, telling reporters beforehand that trade issues were on the agenda and that he hoped to meet with Bush.

"Trade is important, a fair trade that allows creating sources of work, a trade that permits solutions to the problem of poverty," Morales said. "We want to talk about those topics."

Morales' two-month-old leftist government is unhappy with the trade agreement Colombia signed with the United States nearly two weeks ago because it sets a quota for U.S. soy that Colombia must buy, effectively shutting out Bolivian soy.

Colombia is Bolivia's top buyer of soy products, accounting for nearly US$170 million in annual sales. On Tuesday, Colombia President Alvaro Uribe visited Morales in La Paz and agreed to seek a tripartite meeting with Bush to request an amendment to the U.S.-Colombia trade pact on soy to placate the Bolivians.

On Wednesday, Morales announced: "We're are going to confront the FTA with the (people's trade agreement); that is the only outlet for fighting against poverty and unemployment. It is not possible that a few businessmen that receive subsidies in their countries invade us with their production."

The announcement alarmed many in the business community. Bolivia may be condemning itself to "marginalization" by turning its back on a free trade agreement with the United States, said Jose Cespedes, president of the Agricultural Chamber of the East.

Bolivia enjoys duty-free access to U.S. markets for thousands of products, including asparagus, cut flowers and clothing. But the deal, designed to help Bolivia reduce economic dependence on illegal drug production and trafficking, expires at the end of the year.

In addition to Colombia, Peru has signed a trade deal with Washington. Ecuador is scheduled to enter a final round of talks March 23, while its government fends off a wave of Indian-led protests across the country, reports AP.

O.Ch.

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