January 22, 2006

Bolivia’s first Indian president vows deep reform

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 ambitious plans to overhaul South
America's poorest nation and reverse five centuries of
discrimination against the Indian majority.

The latest in a string of leftists to come 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
margin of victory since the return to democracy in 1982.

The Aymara Indian who herded llamas as a boy cried on
Sunday as he donned the presidential sash and medal over his
black wool jacket while 12 heads of state looked on.

"The 500 years of Indian resistance have not been in vain,"
Morales said in his inaugural speech in a nod to the 62 percent
of Bolivians who consider themselves indigenous. "From 500
years of resistance we pass to another 500 years in power."

Miners in their helmets and Indians clad in the colorful
garb and bowler hats of the Andean highlands swarmed a central
square in La Paz chanting "Evo, Evo" as he waved to the crowd.

A sea of banners and indigenous rainbow flags fluttered
against the shabby, concrete buildings downtown at a massive
street party after the inauguration. "Don't turn to the right -
we're watching," one banner read.

Bolivians hope the handover will bring stability to one of
Latin America's most volatile nations in recent years. Street
protests toppled the two previous presidents and dozens died in
clashes with security forces.

But Washington is wary of Morales' fiery leftist rhetoric
and friendships with Cuban President Fidel Castro and
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Chavez, who drew cheers as he stood alongside Morales on
the presidential balcony, warned Bolivians to be wary of
possible attempts by the "North American empire" to oust their
new president.


In his election campaign, Morales said his Movement to
Socialism party was "a nightmare for the United States,"
sponsor of a contentious coca eradication program.

Morales blamed the "neo-liberal" economic policies of the
past and the "looting of our natural resources" for the poverty
that affects about two-thirds of Bolivians, mostly Indians.

Morales said at the inauguration he wanted all of Bolivia's
natural resources, including the vast natural gas fields, to
pass to state hands and asked wealthy nations to write off
Bolivia's $3.4 billion foreign debt.

Morales, 46, was born in a poor highland village where four
of his six siblings died as babies. A bachelor of modest means,
he eschews coat and tie in favor of a striped pullover and has
halved his presidential salary to $1,700 a month.

Despite an approval rating of more than 70 percent before
he took office, some Bolivians are nervous about his lack of
governing experience.

His rise to power began with leadership of the coca growers
and his high-profile opposition to U.S.-funded eradication of
coca, the plant used to make cocaine. "Long live coca, death to
the gringos," was his slogan.

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

More recently, he benefited from widespread discontent over
management of Bolivia's natural gas reserves, the
second-largest in South America.

But Morales has tempered his tone recently in what many see
as a sign of pragmatism and a desire to unite the indigenous
majority and European-descended elite and attract foreign

(Additional reporting by Helen Popper)