Sunday, January 22, 2006

Bolivia's 1st Indian President Inaugurated

Filed at 6:02 p.m. ET

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- Evo Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, took office on Sunday with a promise to lift his nation's struggling indigenous majority out of centuries of poverty and discrimination.

Morales, a former leader of Bolivia's coca growers and a fierce critic of U.S. policies, raised a fist in a leftist salute as he swore to uphold the constitution. ''I wish to tell you, my Indian brothers, that the 500-year indigenous and popular campaign of resistance has not been in vain,'' Morales said.

The 46-year-old son of a peasant farmer, Morales vowed that his socialist government would reshape Bolivia. He criticized free-market economic prescriptions supported by the U.S. and international donors, saying they had failed to end chronic poverty. ''The neoliberal economic model has run out,'' said Morales, an Aymara Indian. Thousands of Aymara and Quechua and other Indians attended, many wearing the varied styles of hats imposed on them when Bolivia was a Spanish colony hundreds of years ago.

They stood alongside miners, students and leftist sympathizers waving Cuban and Venezuelan flags on the cobblestone plaza outside the colonial-era Congress building. ''Power is in the hands of the Bolivian people for the first time,'' said Walter Villarro, among 2,000 miners who turned out dressed in their trademark helmets and black leather jackets.

Morales compared decades of discrimination against Indians to apartheid, saying ''Bolivia seems like South Africa'' as he recounted how, decades ago, Indians were barred from entering the plaza. He said he planned to bring Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves under more state control, and call a constitutional assembly to answer Indian demands for a greater share of power at all levels of society, he said.

But he said his government would rule ''with all and for all'' and would not seek revenge for past injustices. He also reiterated promises to respect and protect private property. Part of a broader Latin American tilt to the left, Morales has left many guessing whether he will maintain free-market policies or take a more radical path.

Morales met Saturday with Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, and was to talk Monday with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vociferous critic of the Bush administration. ''I would like to thank the representative of the United States, Mr. Shannon, for his visit,'' Morales said. ''He visited me in my humble home to express his wishes to strengthen diplomatic relations.''

Morales said his leftist Movement Toward Socialism would be independent, avoiding outside influences. He has said his government would welcome warm relations with the U.S. but he vowed Sunday to not ''submit'' to any outside powers. Morales has said he wants to reverse U.S.-backed eradication of Bolivian coca plants, the raw material for cocaine, but crack down on the international cartels that traffic the drug. Poor Bolivians traditionally chew coca to combat hunger and the effects of altitude.

Shannon has said increased cultivation could provide an opening for traffickers to expand.

Morales said Sunday he was inviting Washington to join in ''an alliance, an agreement on an effective fight against drug trafficking.'' But he said would accept no conditions that constitute ''an excuse by the government of the United States to dominate or subjugate our people.'' The inauguration was attended by 11 national leaders, including Chavez and left-leaning presidents Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Ricardo Lagos of Chile.

''Chavez! Chavez!'' the crowd shouted as the Venezuelan, whom Morales has said he admires, strode past blowing kisses. ''Starting with the government of the United States and concluding with the government of Fidel Castro, we have international support,'' Morales said. Castro sent Cuba's vice president to the ceremony. Mobbed by supporters as entered the building, Morales wore an open-necked, button-down shirt and a dark jacket in keeping with his informal style.

''We've been discriminated against for 500 years, but now we have Evo and a government that will represent us,'' said Zenoino Perez, an Aymara Indian who wore a leather cap adorned with feathers, played a reed flute and was accompanied to the inauguration by about a dozen people from his village.

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