La Paz (AFP) - Bolivian President Evo Morales apologized to his health minister Tuesday after suggesting she was a lesbian for talking with another woman as he gave a speech.
"I don't want to think you're a lesbian," the president told Health Minister Ariana Campero on Monday, chiding her for not listening as he gave a speech at a ceremony to mark the handover of new ambulances to a rural region.
Morales, who describes himself as a "feminist, but one who tells macho jokes," came under fire from women's and gay rights activists for the comment.
"I wasn't my intention to offend anyone," he said in a statement.
"Calling someone lesbian or gay is not an insult or offense. The government and I do not have anything against anyone's sexual choices."
Morales, a leftist former union leader who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, has faced accusations of sexism and homophobia in the past.
In 2010, he came under fire for telling an environmental summit that chickens injected with female hormones are bad because when men eat them "they experience deviances in being men."
And in 2012, women's rights activists and opposition leaders criticized him for laughing along at a series of dirty verses sung during a carnival celebration.
Campero, a doctor and the youngest minister in Morales's cabinet at 29, is no stranger to sexist comments.
"Get married, minister," Vice President Alvaro Garcia told her recently at a public event, warning her against "showing your boyfriend 'just how much you love him'" outside of matrimony, sating that could leave her a single parent.
He later apologized, saying his wife had upbraided him for the comment.
In March, a candidate for mayor in the city of Yacuiba, Carlos Bru, cracked a joke at a campaign rally suggesting she should move to the area as a live-in maid, "with your boss on top."
Campero fired back on Twitter, "I am not going to be silenced. And I am not going to be submissive. This minister is against patriarchy. How unfortunate for the sexists in our ranks. The struggle continues."
Bru went on to lose the election.
Bolivia has large numbers of women in politics thanks to a gender equality law, and six of the 21 current cabinet ministers are women.
But the country also has the worst violence against women of any in Latin America, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
There were 33,000 cases last year, according to official figures.