January 22, 2006

Bolivia to hand power to first indigenous president

By Mary Milliken

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Bolivia will swear in leftist
Evo Morales as its first indigenous president on Sunday in a
explosion of pride for the poor Indian majority that hopes one
of its own can quickly improve their lot.

Morales, an Aymara Indian who herded llamas as a boy, 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.

Indians and miners, chewing coca leaves and listening to
radios, swarmed the colonial government square of the world's
highest capital, where Morales will be inaugurated with an
unprecedented 12 heads of state in attendance.

"We have a lot of faith that he can help us because he is a
poor man like us," said Teofira Marca Sajama, an Indian woman
from Morales' home province of Oruro who was wearing a bowler
hat, flouncy skirt and bright green shawl.

Bolivia's rich and poor and its neighbors hope the historic
handover will bring stability to South America's poorest
country after street protests toppled the two previous

Many of those presidents attending the ceremony 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.

"This is the century for Latin America," said leftist
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who like
Morales, was raised in poverty and never went to university.
"We've had the centuries of Europe and the United States."

Morales, 46, was born in a hardscrabble highland village
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.


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 used 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 "neo-liberal" 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, 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 mend relations with arch-rival and neighbor Chile, one of
Latin America's richest nations.

Outgoing Chilean President Ricardo Lagos met with Morales
on Sunday to possibly pave the way for re-establishing
diplomatic relations broken in 1978. The strained ties date to
a 19th century war in which Chile won mineral-rich coastal
territory from Bolivia.

(Additional reporting by Helen Popper)