January 22, 2006

Morales becomes Bolivia’s first Indian president

By Mary Milliken

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Leftist coca grower leader Evo
Morales was sworn in on Sunday as the first indigenous
president of Bolivia with high expectations of a better life
for the poor majority in one of Latin America's most volatile

The latest in a string of leftists to sweep to power in the
region in a backlash against U.S.-backed free-market policies,
Morales won 54 percent of the vote on December 18, the biggest
landslide since the return to democracy in 1982.

An Aymara Indian who herded llamas as a boy, Morales cried
as he donned the presidential sash and medal over his black
wool jacket embroidered with traditional colored stripes while
an unprecedented 12 heads of state looked on.

"The 500 years of Indian resistance have not been in vain,"
Morales said in his inaugural speech. "From 500 years of
resistance we pass to another 500 years in power."

Miners and Indians with weathered faces, many clad in the
colorful clothing of the Andean highlands, swarmed the colonial
government square chanting "Evo, Evo" and waving the indigenous
rainbow-hued flag, the Wiphala.

Bolivia's rich and poor hope the historic hand-over will
bring stability after street protests toppled the two previous
presidents and dozens died in clashes with security forces.

But Morales' leftist and pro-coca rhetoric has unsettled
Washington, a highly influential presence in Bolivia as the top
aid donor and sponsor of a coca eradication program. In closing
his election campaign, he said his Movement to Socialism party
was "a nightmare for the United States."

His biggest supporters along the way have been Cuban
President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez,
united by their opposition to U.S. presence in the region.

In his inaugural speech, Morales blamed the "neo-liberal"
economic policies of the past and the "looting of our natural
resources" for the poverty that affects around two-thirds of

"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 clad in a bowler hat,
flouncy skirt and bright green shawl.


Morales, 46, was born in a hardscrabble highland village
where four of his six siblings died 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.

Despite an approval rating of over 70 percent before he
took office, some Bolivians are nervous about his lack of
governing experience and the huge challenges ahead.

"There is hope but there is also uncertainty, especially in
a country so diverse where there are lots of differences," said
family doctor Miguel Angel Suarez.

Morales' rise to power began with his leadership of the
coca growers and his high-profile 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

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.

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 and
attract foreign investment.

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

Late on 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.

The inauguration also provides Bolivia with an opportunity
to mend relations with arch-rival and neighbor Chile. Outgoing
Chilean President Ricardo Lagos met with Morales on Sunday to
possibly pave the way for reestablishing diplomatic relations
broken in 1978.

(Additional reporting by Helen Popper)