SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia – Bolivian President Evo Morales had a blunt message for the visiting U.S. Pentagon chief on Monday: Latin American nations will pick their own friends and business partners, including Iran, regardless of U.S. opinion.
The colorful leftist leader delivered an hourlong welcome to delegates at a regional defense conference that included U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Morales never mentioned Gates by name. But most of the speech, and all of the applause lines, were clearly directed at the Pentagon chief and former head of the CIA.
Bolivia is more democratic and representative than the United States, Morales said, and democracy would improve in the entire region if the United States stopped interfering. Bolivia receives $70 million in U.S. aid annually, much of it for popular nutrition and health programs.
He mentioned the spread of Iranian and Russian business and other ties in Latin America, and said it is not the U.S. place to complain.
"Bolivia under my government will have an agreement, an alliance, to anyone in the world," Morales said. "Nobody will forbid us," he said to applause.
Morales has allied Bolivia with Venezuela, Cuba and Iran, and drawn criticism from the U.S. for the Tehran ties.
Last month Bolivia said it is interested in buying Iranian-made airplanes and helicopters for military training and transportation. Bolivia also wants to team up with Iran to build a nuclear power plant and establish a joint development bank. Venezuela is teaming with Russia on a civilian nuclear plant.
Gates didn't seem fazed by the one-hour monologue. A day earlier he had warned that countries doing business with Iran should remember that Iran is under international sanctions over its nuclear program. He also questioned whether Iran has the technical capability to help another nations develop civilian nuclear power.
"As a sovereign state Bolivia obviously can have relationships with any country in the world that it wishes to," Gates said Sunday. "I think Bolivia needs to be mindful of the number of United Nations Security Council resolutions that have been passed with respect to Iran's behavior."
Gates addressed the defense ministers' forum later Monday. His remarks were brief and focused on cooperation across the Western Hemisphere. He did not mention Morales or the wider current on anti-Americanism among some Latin American nations.
"Let us not lose sight of our shared dreams and common aspirations of a free, prosperous and secure Americas," Gates said.
Later, the U.S. Embassy in La Paz issued a statement saying that "we regret that the government of Bolivia missed an opportunity to make progress on the conference's key themes" — among them peace and confidence in the region and democracy, armed forces and society. "We remain committed to working with Bolivia and the other countries of the hemisphere at the conference on these important challenges."
The popular Morales, an ethnic Aymara and former coca-growers' union leader, was first elected in December 2005 and recently declared that he intends to run again in 2014. His closest ally is the even more fiercely anti-U.S. leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.
Morales ticked off a history of attempted coups, alleged election- and vote-tampering, military meddling and vague conspiracies involving the United States. Some of it is based in truth, although the U.S. denies that a former ambassador tried to engineer a coup against Morales in 2008, as he alleged Monday.
Morales kicked out the then-U.S. ambassador in 2008, and the two nations have not normalized diplomatic relations since. Morales also expelled the U.S. DEA on suspicion of espionage.
He denies that coca grown in Bolivia feeds the worldwide demand for cocaine, although the country produces vastly more of the crop that would be needed for its traditional and legal medicinal use in Bolivia.
Morales also alleged U.S. involvement in coup attempts or political upheaval in Venezuela in 2002, Honduras in 2009 and Ecuador in 2010.
"The empire of the United States won," in Honduras, Morales said, a reference to the allegations of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya that the U.S. was behind his ouster.
"The people of the Americas in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, we won," Morales continued. "We are three to one with the United States. Let's see what the future brings."
U.S. officials have repeatedly denied involvement in all of those cases and critics of the United States have produced no clear evidence.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa called a Sept. 30 police revolt over benefit cuts a coup attempt in disguise, but he did not accuse the United States of being involved.
Associated Press writers Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Frank Bajak in Bogota and John Rice in Mexico City contributed to this report.