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Bolivia's 1st Indian President Sworn In

Evo Morales, a leftist who opposes U.S. policy, envisions 500 years of indigenous power. The hopes kindled by his rise may be tough to fulfill.

January 23, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Evo Morales, who rose from rural poverty to become a crusader for disenfranchised Indians and a fierce critic of U.S. policy, was sworn in Sunday as the first indigenous president of this impoverished Andean nation.

"The 500 years of Indian resistance have not been in vain," Morales, his eyes at times tearful, declared in his inaugural speech as thousands watching him on a giant TV screen outside the government palace cheered. "From 500 years of resistance we pass to another 500 years in power."

This high-altitude administrative capital was replete with parades, rallies and impromptu demonstrations of solidarity for Morales, an Aymara Indian who herded llamas as a boy and scavenged fruit tossed by passing motorists. All segments of the Bolivian population, even the largely white and mixed-race upper echelon that has long dominated the country, seemed to recognize the historic significance of his electrifying rise.

Juan Alvarado, 56, a coca-leaf-chewing miner, wore his work helmet as he joined the tumultuous throng saluting the new president. "He is of the same blood as we are. He knows how we have suffered," he said. "Our ancestors always said we would emerge triumphant after the centuries of mistreatment."

Morales' ascension has lifted hopes of bringing long-stalled economic progress to a nation notorious for its lack of upward mobility, where as much as 60% of the population remains mired in poverty. But many worry that despite his promised wide-ranging reforms, Morales will find it hard to match expectations. His Movement to Socialism coalition controls only one of two houses in Congress and three of nine governorships.

"We know everything cannot transform overnight, but we are confident that Evo will be able to bring us justice," said Fanny Vaza, 36, a teacher and mother of four. "Bolivia has needed a change for years, and we finally have a real change."

A dozen heads of state witnessed Morales and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera -- a former sociology professor and political prisoner -- took the oath of office for five-year terms and donned ceremonial sashes. Afterward, Morales saluted the crowd from a balcony flanked by several leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of the new president and an implacable opponent of the Bush administration.

Later, Morales led an official march through packed downtown streets to an open-air location at Plaza San Francisco, where joyous crowds who had gathered that morning were listening to Andean ballads condemning imperialism and extolling socialism.

Morales, known for his informal dress, eschewed a tie for an open-collared white shirt and a wool jacket embroidered with traditional multicolor stripes.

He struck a theme of reconciliation in his almost two-hour inaugural speech, which came a day after a cordial meeting here with Thomas A. Shannon, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for the region.

During the presidential campaign, Morales -- who came to prominence leading unionized growers of coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine -- had pledged to be a "nightmare" for Washington and harshly criticized U.S.-funded efforts to eradicate the crop.

His rise to the presidency has been widely viewed as among the most dramatic manifestations of a regionwide backlash against U.S.-backed market-based economic policies. "We are going to end the colonial state and the neoliberal model," said Morales, using the common regional term for such economic policies.

He plans to convene a convention this year to reform the nation's constitution.

The movement has helped to also bring leftist governments to power in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Another left-leaning populist, former army officer Ollanta Humala, is leading in the polls ahead of April's presidential election in neighboring Peru.

Nevertheless, since Morales' landslide win on Dec. 18, in which he drew 54% of the vote, he and his advisors have toned down the left-wing rhetoric, tempered talk of expropriating foreign assets in the natural-gas-rich nation and pledged not to act rashly or to needlessly alienate potential allies. Morales has pledged to fight drug trafficking and find other markets for coca products that are legal in Bolivia, such as tea.

"Cocaine is not part of the Andean culture," he said. "We must finish with drugs."

Among the leaders Morales met with before his swearing-in was President Ricardo Lagos of Chile, who leaves office in March. Both men sought to mollify prolonged tensions between their neighboring nations. Morales had angered many Chileans by pledging to fight to recoup coastal territory lost in a 19th century war with Chile. That outcome left Bolivia landlocked, which has contributed to the nation's perennially impoverished status.

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