January 22, 2006

Bolivia makes history with first Indian president

By Mary Milliken

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivia will swear in leftist
Evo Morales as its first indigenous president on Sunday in a
festive climate as the poor Indian majority celebrates the
long-awaited rise to power of one of its own.

Morales takes office after winning 54 percent of the vote
on December 18 in the biggest landslide since the country's
return to democracy in 1982.

Bolivians rich and poor hope the historic handover will
bring stability to their nation, South America's poorest, where
the two previous presidents were toppled by street protests.

In an unprecedented show of international support for the
landlocked country, 12 heads of state will be in the world's
highest capital to watch the Aymara Indian and coca growers'
leader don the presidential sash in Congress.

Many of those presidents are fellow Latin American
leftists, a reflection of the region's shift leftward as voters
reject free-market economic policies that did little to bring
down high poverty rates.

"We, the poor, also have the right to govern and in
Bolivia, the poor indigenous have the right to be presidents,"
Morales told his followers on Saturday as an indigenous ritual
at the sacred pre-Inca ruins of Tiwanaku.

Morales, 46, was born in a hardscrabble highland village,
herded llamas as a boy and saw four of his six siblings die as
babies. A bachelor of modest means, he eschews the Western coat
and tie in favor of a striped pullover and has cut his
presidential salary in half to $1,700 a month.

"For the first time an Indian sits in the presidency and he
has gone on a tour of many countries. It inspires pride in
peasants like me," said Simon Alanoca, an Aymara who left the
countryside to work in the indigenous city of El Alto.


Morales rise to power began with his leadership of the coca
growers, united by opposition to the U.S.-funded eradication of
the coca crop, the raw material to make cocaine. "Long live
coca, death to the gringos," was his mantra.

Limited coca cultivation is legal in Bolivia to supply
leaves for chewing or brewing tea, the traditional ways to ward
off altitude sickness, fatigue and hunger. Cocaine is illegal.

More recently, he benefited from widespread discontent over
Bolivia's management of its natural gas reserves, the second
largest in South America. Indigenous leaders rallied the masses
to demand nationalization of gas to benefit the poor and ended
up ousting two leaders.

His strongest supporters on the road to victory have been
Fidel Castro of Cuba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with
whom he shares a disdain for the historic U.S. influence in the
region and its "neoliberal" economic recipes.

In closing his election campaign, he said his Movement to
Socialism party was "a nightmare for the United States."

But Morales has tempered his speech in the last month in
what many see as a sign of pragmatism and a desire to unite the
indigenous majority and the European-descended elite.

He maintains his anti-eradication stance but now vows to
fight the narcotics trade and has pledged to turn the page with

Late Saturday, Morales met with the top U.S. official for
Latin America, Assistant Secretary of State for Western
Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon. They said they will work
together and plan to set up a series of meetings, but made no
mention of the war on drugs that divides them.

The inauguration also provides Bolivia with an opportunity
to improve relations with arch-rival and neighbor Chile, one of
Latin America's richest nations.

Outgoing Chilean President Ricardo Lagos will meet with
Morales early Sunday and attend the inauguration. The two
countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1978 and their
strained ties date back to a 19th-century war in which Chile
won mineral-rich coastal territory from Bolivia.

(Additional reporting by Helen Popper)